Monday, May 30, 2016

Chapter II. Review of Literature

In the following section, I review the current literature on STEM, equity, and culturally relevant pedagogy by focusing my discussion a review of previous theoretical and empirical research. My purpose here is to historically place this doctoral dissertation in practice in the context of what has been accomplished in the past. Finally, I outline our current conceptual framework, which reflects a modified activity theory. I also explain how we used this modified activity system as a framework to engage both student learners and teachers as learners in order to produce significant gains in STEM-foundational thinking for traditionally underperforming students.


As long as there has been education, from the ancient Egyptians’ library built by Ashurbanipal, the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (685-627 B.C.E.), to Confucius during the Zhou Dynasty (551-479 B.C.E.), to Hippocrates (c. 460-370 B.C.E.), Socrates (c. 470-399 B.C.E.), and Aristotle (c. 384-322 B.C.E.), there has been debate about how it should be organized, managed, who it should be for, and how knowledge should be disseminated to people (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011). Through philosophical debates, educational theorists such as John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1997), Paolo Freire’s Education for Critical Consciousness (2005), Kenneth Howe’s Equality of Educational Opportunity (1993), and W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth”: a passionate belief that African Americans need greater access to higher education (DuBois, 2002, pp. 68-72) educators and critics have tried to understand how a system is unable to adequately service all students. A racial gap is apparent when one looks at the achievement of White students compared to the achievement (or rather underachievement) of those marginalized such as African-American and Hispanic students (Schmidt, 2012). What has become known and accepted as the opportunity gap, can unfortunately predict a child’s success in public education based solely on skin color (Carter, 2013). How does one “not merely apply theory, but use it to create equity-oriented and meaningful change in ourselves and the systems we’re in “(Gutierrez, 2010, p. 104)? For some, the answer lies in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. I will identify current academic research of STEM education, Critical Race Theory, racial consciousness in STEM classrooms, and the differing perspectives of what constitutes STEM education. It is my contention that there are some holes in this research, and that combining recommendations from each of these areas will help create equitable structures for students of color supporting these traditionally under-performing students with STEM-foundational thinking. I believe that longer-ranging research is needed in order to better understand the intersectionality of race, STEM foundational thinking, and systemic inequity.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Research Questions

This study intends to answer:
(a) What elementary school structures support students in STEM curricular areas?
(b) Do these supports differ for subgroups of students, i.e. students of color, students in poverty, and English language learners?
(c) What are the components of elementary STEM
opportunities to learn that foster interest, participation, and academic success in STEM content areas, especially for marginalized students of color?

Significance of Study

There is great significance in focusing on STEM equity and access to STEM-related content and activities for all students in elementary grades, including general supports for critical and creative thinking and innovation. I focus on elementary levels because research shows that it is in these early years that students find their natural interest in STEM foundational thinking either supported or discouraged, with the result that they are variously successful in the content areas as they grow older (Moomaw, 2013; Helm et al., 2001; Katz et al., 2000; Katz, 2010). Elementary-school students are most likely to gain STEM foundational thinking when they have opportunities to engage in in-depth investigations of phenomena around them worthy of their knowledge and understanding (Katz & Chard, 2000).

Definition of Terms for STEM Foundational Thinking and Instructional Activities

STEM connects the principles of the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics in order to solve problems faced by individuals and society. STEM-focused foundational thinking, teaching, and learning all instill a deep and extensive understanding of STEM content as it is applied to the real world. Students who participate in STEM instructional activities collaboratively engage in (a) critical thinking; (b) scientific inquiry; (c) applying specific content knowledge to real-world contexts; (d) the engineering design process; (e) evidence-based reasoning and argumentation; and (f) effective written and oral communication.

          Critical thinking. Critical thinking is an important STEM skill that takes time and practice. It requires students to understand their own reasoning, while dissecting their thinking, and looking at how that thinking is constructed. Finally, critical thinking requires students to evaluate and judge the quality of their own or another’s thinking. These are all needed in order to be successful in society. For example, with such an emphasis on improving test scores, many students are graduating school lacking the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in higher education or in the workplace
(Szymanski, 2013). Current research on critical thinking indicates that by having a more in-depth focus on enhancing critical thinking skills in schools, it can increase academic rigor and the scores on the standardized assessments (VanTassel-Baska, Bracken, Feng, & Brown, 2009; McCollister & Sayler, 2010; Snodgrass, 2011; Tsai, Chen, Chang, & Chang, 2013). When teachers create and facilitate STEM instructional activities that enhance critical thinking, students are better able to understand why something has occurred instead of only understanding what has occurred. This deeper understanding “allows the students to better analyze the circumstances surrounding the occurrence and differing viewpoints about the occurrence” (Tsai et al., 2013).

          Scientific inquiry. Scientific inquiry is vital to understand scientific concepts, as well as “the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work” (National Science Education Standards, 2004, p. 23). Students who are participating in scientific inquiry during STEM instructional activities are formulating questions that can be answered through investigation. Students must have a content knowledge that is specific to various aspects of the real-world problem being investigated, while engineering solutions that can be tested scientifically. The National Science Education Standards, which were developed by the National Research Council (1996), and updated and renamed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2016) state that students need multiple opportunities to:

Use scientific inquiry and develop the ability to think and act in ways associated with inquiry, including asking questions, planning and conducting investigations, using appropriate tools and techniques to gather data, thinking critically and logically about relationships between evidence and explanations, constructing and analyzing alternative explanations, and communicating scientific arguments" (p. 105).

Scientific inquiry is a very powerful way to not only understand science content, but how to ask questions, search for supporting evidence from a variety of sources, and communicate and defend one’s thinking to a real audience.

          Content knowledge application. STEM foundational thinking and instructional activities draw on a large base of content knowledge. In order to tackle real-world problems, students need to be able to apply a variety of content knowledge (e.g.: mathematics, science, social studies, technology). Problems need to be authentic, and the content needs to be pedagogically grounded in academic standards. Doing so gives students insight into the interconnectedness of various curricular content areas and how they can be used together to solve novel problems facing society.

          Engineering design process. Best pedagogical practices indicate that teachers need to design lessons that introduce creativity and innovation in order to help students with career exploration and development, especially female students and students of color. By helping students build a strong foundation in problem-solving, teachers allow students to use cross-disciplinary tools for discovery and for developing solutions to problems that are open-ended and embedded in the real world. Classrooms that focus on STEM foundational thinking shift students away from learning isolated engineering-design model as a framework for instruction, teachers can advance students’ academic abilities, creativity, and learning. Students will have a framework for thinking systematically about problem-solving. This framework includes: (a) identifying the problem; (b) exploring possible solutions or researching needed information; (c) designing a solution; (d) creating or building the prototype solution; (e) testing the idea; and (f) redesigning or modifying the solution to make it better. This framework focuses on teamwork and open-ended design while emphasizing creativity and feasibility.
facts, moving towards experience-based inquiry with multiple opportunities for independent learning. By using the

          Evidence-based reasoning.
Identifying sound evidence and drawing logical conclusions is critical to problem-solving. This skill allows students to transfer knowledge from one content area to another and apply to potentially unrelated real-world contexts. In order for teachers to effectively engage their students in reasoning, they must shift their role from that of a lecturer, imparting wisdom for the students, to a facilitator of learning, allowing for discussions and encouraging an open thought process. Teachers need to encourage students to ask questions, evaluate multiple, sometimes conflicting, answers and opinions (Henderson-Hurley & Hurley, 2013; Tsai et al., 2013). Educational philosopher John Dewey always believed that students are motivated to problem solve because they have an “innate love of learning” based on their survival instincts (p. 611). In fact, the simple act of discovery plays a central role in learning. When students “become interested in a problem as a problem and in inquiry and learning for the sake of solving the problem, [student] interest is distinctively intellectual” (Dewey, 1939, p. 614). Students who are strong reasoners will grow up thinking critically about problems and making better decisions as adults; they will be creative, imaginative people who understand the world on a deeper level.

          Effective communication. Communication is a learning and innovation skill (Framework for 21st Century Learning, 2007). Effective written and oral communication requires students to “articulate thoughts and ideas effectively” while informing, instructing, motivating, or persuading others (Framework for 21st Century Learning, 2002). Students need to make connections between classroom writing and practical, real-world applications. This includes reflecting on problem solving and technical writing for STEM-related jobs. STEM instructional activities combine oral and written communication with information and technology literacy.

Limitations and Delimitations

The limitations of this study relate to our sample size and lack of qualitative data such as classroom observations and student interviews, making subgroups of teachers and leaders surveyed too small to permit meaningful disaggregated analysis. We had a sample of seven urban elementary schools from an urban public school district in which to survey teachers, students, and other educational leaders. I would have liked to have more schools participate, possibly from different school districts, so that our data analysis might be generalizable to different schools. Although I understand that with regards to many types of educational reform, one size does not fit all; what works as a change effort or leveraging point in one school may or may not work in another building with a different student demographic population. However, I feel that STEM foundational thinking is apropos for raising student achievement in all content areas, preparing students with 21st century skills necessary for college and career readiness. Including an elementary school with a strong STEM focus would also have given this multi-site comparative case study a different context with which to analyze both qualitative and quantitative data.


So far, I have outlined the background of STEM inequities in public education. I described the purpose and significance of our study, while naming our specific research questions. I described STEM foundational thinking and instructional activities, as well as defining relevant terms. Finally, I discussed my limitations in disaggregating our data analysis in order to generalize our results. I also discussed the boundaries we have set for this study, and why I feel that STEM foundational thinking is appropriate for raising student achievement.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Chapter I. Introductory Justification

There is much debate about public education in the United States. From John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1997) to Paolo Freire’s Education for Critical Consciousness (2005) to Geoffrey Canada and Waiting for Superman (2010), educators and critics have tried to understand how a system is unable to adequately service all students. A racial gap is apparent when one looks at the achievement of White students compared to the achievement (or rather underachievement) of those marginalized such as African-American and Hispanic students. What has become known, and to a degree accepted as the opportunity gap, can unfortunately predict a child’s success in public education based solely on skin color.

Background of the Problem

Many of STEM initiatives appear to be working; between 2002 and 2012, the number of graduate students in STEM classes grew 35%. However, the majority of this growth is comprised of White males and non-White students are vastly underrepresented in STEM classes (Gonzalez & Kuenzi, 2012). Racism and prejudice are pervasive in our society. Schools, and classrooms in particular, are accurate representations of students’ worlds, making “STEM disciplines representative of the gated community because of its elitism” (Cobb & Haynes, 2016, p. 285). It is this gatekeeper mentality that perpetuates systemic racism determining who can and should participate in STEM. This is why it is so important to counter that narrative that STEM is only for “White people” (Delpit, 2012, p. 14), replacing it with one that redefines “what it means to be both [a] racially conscious and an effective teacher to the benefit of all students” (Cobb & Haynes, 2016, p. 284). Students of color do not have equal access to STEM programs in public elementary schools. As the demographics of American students become increasingly diverse racially and ethnically, it is imperative that American educators must work to engage students from all backgrounds in STEM education. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, students of color in the United States represent 50.3 percent of the total student population (Maxwell, 2014, pp. 14-15).

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of our research was to ascertain what practices are in place for recruiting and engaging students of color in STEM curricula, as well as recommendations for creating a culturally relevant school culture (e.g.: an effective learning organizations). We are highlighting critical practices already happening in elementary schools that promoted diversity in its participating student body. This was completed through researching schools and districts’ current STEM practices and the impact those practices have on students of color’s participation and academic growth in STEM subjects. I believe that STEM education is the tipping point in this long struggle for equitable access and educational outcomes for students of color. I believe that ALL students should have access to an education of their own design for their own purposes, which represents their culture, heritage, race, and ethnicity. Our research team focused our study on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) equity and access to STEM content. Specifically, we researched STEM curricular activities in the elementary grades (K5) because research shows that it is in these early years, students of color find their natural interest in STEM content supported or discouraged. We believe in using conscious, anti-racist dialogue among staff that will sustain and deepen authentic understanding about systemic racism in relation to STEM curriculum. I researched what school structures are currently in place in the various school districts available through C-PEER, which support students of color in STEM curricular areas. I also observed successful components are available in elementary STEM programs. Current research literature sheds light on the narrative of systemic racism in schools and how STEM education and White racial knowledge can be used to narrow the opportunity gap for marginalized students. It is the intent of this doctoral dissertation study to not only add to the current literature, but to suggest practical suggestions for teachers, administrators, district leaders, and policy makers to create equal educational STEM opportunities for students of color.

Saturday, May 14, 2016



In this dissertation, I present my research on STEM foundational thinking and instructional activities at the elementary-school level. Specifically, (a) What elementary school structures support students in STEM curricular areas? (b) Do these supports differ for students of color? (c) What are the components of elementary STEM opportunities to learn that foster interest, participation, and academic success in STEM foundational thinking, especially for marginalized students? I discuss our modified activity theory framework (CHAT). Systemic racism contributes to the diminished capacity of children of color in STEM curricular courses. There is a lack of diversity not only in STEM education classes, but in the STEM career pipeline. Our research team analyzed schools as effective learning organizations. My specific focus was on STEM equity and access to STEM foundational thinking. Specifically, I researched access to STEM curricular activities in the elementary grades (K5) because research shows that it is in these early years, students of color find their natural interest in STEM supported or discouraged through access (Wiebe et al., 2013). Chapter one introduces the problem of STEM inequity in public education, describing the purpose and significance of this research, definition of terms, and my assumptions, limitations, and delimitations. Chapter two reviews the current literature on race, equity, and STEM-foundational thinking and leadership practices, emphasizing the importance of applying a Critical Race theoretical framework and culturally responsive pedagogy in order to highlight inequitable access to STEM curricula for students of color as well as the hegemony currently present in many STEM programming. Chapter three focuses on the mixed methodology used for this research, including the research design, data collection and analysis procedures. I present my research findings as organized by my STEM research questions. Finally, I conclude in chapter five by discussing the findings as well as my suggestions for future research and pedagogical practice. It is my hope that this research will guide others in creating significant, positive gains for students who have been marginalized due to the color of their skin.