Research indicates that very few students view themselves as STEM learners when investigating a question or problem in their community. Whereas previous research indicates a lack of diversity in STEM education and careers and specific schools structures that support successful STEM integration, there is a greater need to research what elementary school structures support students of color in STEM curricular areas. When researching mathematics education in working class Latina/o communities, Marta Civil (2014) feels that her interests in learning as a cultural process, and in particular the concept of funds of knowledge, can be extended to STEM learning. For example, Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez (2005, p. 72) explain “we use the term funds of knowledge to refer to these historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being.” By placing STEM education under a sociocultural lens, Civil (2014) sees connections between making connections to mathematics in the real world and STEM. STEM learning must be connected to the real world. At its heart, the engineering-design process lays a lifelong framework of the continual process of improvement by connecting the principles of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. She goes on to say that “we need to understand better the role of valorization of knowledge particularly as it applies to everyday practices versus practices in STEM disciplines” (Civil, 2014, p. 15). All students, especially marginalized students, need to see themselves as learners. Research supports that when students bridge out-of-school concepts with in-school content, they make “robust, authentic connections” in this third space (Gutierrez, et al. 1999). Researchers agree on the need to reform traditional ideologies of a rigorous education to one of STEM-foundational thinking. However, STEM education reform at the elementary school level, is missing from current educational research.
STEM Education Reform
According to Bybee (2013), STEM education reform differs from other educational reforms due to four STEM themes: (a) addresses global challenges that citizens must understand allowing for (b) changing perceptions of environmental and associated problems; (c) recognizing the importance and need for 21st century workforce skills; and addressing (d) the continuing issues of national security (p. 33). However, what good is a STEM education, if we, as a society, cannot provide equal access and opportunity to marginalized students of color? “Dually disadvantaged” people (both underrepresented minorities who are also poor, working poor, or working class) “collectively comprise the largest group left out of the expanding roster of people working in or training for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” (Bozeman & Gaughan, 2015, p. 27).
Underrepresented minority groups (URM) face a myriad of systemic barriers to accessing a highly rigorous education. For example, when just looking at socioeconomic status, in 2013, “one if five children lived below the poverty line. Fewer than 10% of White and Asian children lived below the poverty level. 38% of Black children and 30% of Hispanic children lived in poverty” (Bozeman & Gaughan, 2015, p. 30). Poverty matters. As Bozeman & Gaughan (2015) ask, “How, exactly, is the nation supposed to produce scientists from hungry children who cannot read when they get to school, and who then attend a failing school with other hungry children living in dangerous places” (p. 30)?
Obviously, it is a rhetorical question. Even more obvious is the fact that “STEM-related education should be accessible for everyone” (Findley, 2014, p. 19). Unfortunately, marginalized groups are underrepresented in STEM-related fields and STEM curricular courses in school. In the next twenty years, STEM-related jobs will increase faster than any other field. In fact, “between 2014 and 2024, the number of STEM jobs will grow by 17%, as compared to 12% for non-STEM jobs” (Rosen, 2015). African Americans’ and Latinos’ populations have grown substantially, but they are less likely to pursue a career in engineering, computer science, or advanced manufacturing than in 2001.
Research abounds surrounding the critical race theory, growth versus fixed mindsets, and stereotype threat. However, very little has been done to synthesize neuroscience and educational research with race and STEM education. With multiple attempts and failures at education reform, STEM education provides the first real opportunity for sustained culturally responsive, educational reform. Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz (2015) call this a “STEM shift” which “encourages, reimagining schools, from Kindergarten through the 12th grade, including the way curriculum is designed, organized, and delivered” (p. 8). Their call to action is deeper than a stronger focus in the individual STEM content areas (e.g.: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). They call for an “entire systemic shift in how learning happens” (Myers & Berkowicz, 2015, p. 8). STEM educational reform is about “the learning process of inquiry, imagination, questioning, problem-solving, creativity, invention, and collaboration” (Myers & Berkowicz, 2015, p. 8).