Magazine Feature

Planting Seeds, Growing Diversity

STEM classes have long been dominated by white males. Here are ways to make these fields more attractive to girls and students of color.
Bookmarked 15 times
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Edison. Albert Einstein. Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Last year, when students at Ridgecrest Intermediate School in Palos Verdes, Calif., were asked to name scientists, their answers—the men listed above—reflected a common perception. Most of the leading scientists they came up with were white, male or dead.

Although women and people of color have made major breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), their contributions have often been missing from classroom curricula. This lack of role models—and the belief that these disciplines are unwelcoming to women and minorities—has contributed to a stubborn level of underrepresentation.

Closing this gap is not merely a matter of fairness, according to the National Academies, a Washington-based group that represents scientists, engineers, researchers and medical professionals. Failing to access the finest minds, regardless of gender or ethnicity, also limits U.S. scientific and economic competitiveness. Improving instruction and access could not only increase STEM proficiency, it might boost critical thinking skills as well. Young Americans who can think through political positions, analyze production schedules or calculate interest are ultimately better citizens.


Lack of Diversity, By the Numbers

When it comes to diversity in science and engineering, numbers suggest untapped human resources. In 2006, the National Academies reported that African Americans, Latinos and American Indians made up about 28 percent of the U.S. population. But these groups accounted for just 9 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering jobs. Meanwhile, data from the National Science Foundation showed that men outnumbered women in those fields almost two to one.

Further research suggests that women and people of color must overcome barriers when it comes to STEM jobs. According to a recent survey by the Bayer Corp., more than three-quarters of women and underrepresented minorities said that girls and children of color are not identified or encouraged to pursue STEM studies. Two-thirds said that resistance to the idea of female or minority scientists remains an important cause of underrepresentation.

Advocates for diversity see these social and attitudinal barriers as missed opportunities for all involved. “[Female and minority] students aren’t seeing that science is now, that it’s something they can do,” says Alison Seymour, the seventh-grade science teacher at Ridgecrest Intermediate who asked her students to name famous sceintists. “A diverse background brings diverse ideas. Thinking out of the box is a big part of science, which you won’t get if everyone is from the same background and education.”


Integrating Identity

In addition to teaching, Seymour is a trained marine biologist who volunteers for Earthwatch, an environmental watchdog group. She makes a concerted effort to weave diverse peoples into her curriculum. For example, when she discusses James Watson and Francis Crick, the biologists who proposed the double helix structure of DNA, Seymour highlights the work of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin’s research was instrumental to the DNA breakthrough, but she received no credit when Watson and Crick collected their Nobel Prizes.

Seymour also offers a variety of extra-credit projects aimed at introducing students to scientists of various backgrounds. Students choose from a list of scientists, study the person’s biography and research, then write up or record a mock interview. By highlighting contributions by women and people of color, this approach seeks to explode stereotypes. The roster of accomplished, if relatively unknown, scientists includes astronaut Mae Jemison, AIDS researcher David Ho, ichthyologist Eugenie Clark and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Mario Molino. Variations on the assignment include creating a Wanted Poster or a brochure about the scientist. At the elementary school level, Seymour suggests students explore some of the same material by making puppets.

To create the list of scientists, Seymour accessed the websites of NASA and the Nobel Prize committee. She also recommends the book 100 Most Popular Scientists for Young Adults by Kendall Haven and Donna Clark. “No one book had it all,” Seymour says. “But you can’t say that the information isn’t out there.” She encourages teachers to examine the demographics of their classrooms to help guide their efforts. At her school, Asian-American and white students predominate.

Sara Crossman, 13, staged a mock interview with a classmate about Jane Goodall in Seymour’s class. She says what she learned while researching the primatologist inspired her. “We picked her because she was female, and most of the main scientists we learned about in the past were males,” says Sara, who has three dogs and two cats and dreams of someday studying animals herself. “I loved how she had a major love for animals, because I adore animals, too.”


Passion Appeal

When it comes to science and engineering, teachers and curricula also have the power to reach underrepresented groups by appealing to student interests and passions. Initially, this often involves dispelling fixed ideas about these fields.

“Girls have the concept that engineers are gearheads, that it’s about engineering a car or a plane, and don’t realize you need engineers to make [any product],” says Mary Phelps. Phelps became a middle school technology education teacher three years ago, after a career in mechanical engineering and management at General Electric. Engineering is “about how to solve problems,” she says. “You find what interests girls, and often, it’s about helping people.”

Phelps’s classes at Noble Middle School in Wilmington, N.C., are a third or more female, in contrast to the 10 percent she’s typically seen in the past. She credits this shift to concerted recruiting efforts that let girls know the assignments aren’t all about “rocket ships and dragsters.” Projects include designing prosthetics and toys from recyclable materials such as water bottles and tennis balls and making model homes out of cardboard boxes. As a speaker at career fairs and at her school, Phelps calls attention to careers—such as bio-engineering and the engineering of technology—that help the environment and improve health care.

Phelps recommends partnering with local companies and organizations, especially those that promote diversity, such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Bringing in presenters who undercut stereotypes offers living, breathing examples to underrepresented groups. “[Students] see that it’s not all white males—that there are people talking to them who look like them,” Phelps says. Phelps helps oversee the SWE’s Aspire program, a K–12 educational outreach to girls.

"A diverse background brings diverse ideas. Thinking out of the box is a big part of science, which you won't get if everyone is from the same background and education."

How teachers manage the classroom can also make a difference in the willingness of female and minority students to engage the subject. Fred Dillon, a math teacher at Strongsville High School in a Cleveland suburb, says he makes sure no one shouts the answer in class. Risk takers may shut down more deliberative thinkers, he says, and he cites research that teachers are much faster at stopping girls if they respond incorrectly. In contrast, teachers are more likely to encourage boys, even if they are giving the wrong answer.

Dillon lets students of all backgrounds and both genders know it’s okay to be wrong. “That’s how math is done,” he says. “It’s okay to question things. That’s a regular step in problem solving.”

Using different teaching techniques can also foster student involvement, says Jenny Salls, a math teacher at Sparks High School in Sparks, Nev., where the student body is more than half Latino. “The traditional way [of teaching] is to teach by lecture,” Salls says. “But many females and non-white students prefer less competitive games and more opportunities to work with each other—though that’s a stereotype, too. You can never assume.”

Salls also strives to present math as a dynamic human endeavor rather than a static field of study. She describes the history of mathematics as a way to help students see the needs that fed its development. She uses diverse examples of mathematicians, such as Emily Noether and Benjamin Banneker, an African American, as well as al-Khwarizmi, the Persian scholar who codified algebra in the ninth century.

This inclusion can be expanded from the individual to the cultural. Diana Ceja is a math teacher who recently became an assistant principal at Garey High School in Pomona, Calif.—a school where more than 90 percent of students are Latino. She has exposed her classes to ways diverse cultures have contributed to mathematics. She has used patterns in fabrics from around the world to explore geometry, and introduced mancala, a type of counting game popular in much of Africa.

“Sometimes you run into a class of students who are not interested in the contributions the Mayans have brought into the study of mathematics, or the [contributions of the] Chinese,” Ceja says. “But a math project that incorporates their community gets [students] excited, so we start there.”

Ceja is also active in Todos: Mathematics for All, a group that advocates for equitable math education. She recommends that teachers emphasize how math can be applied in the real world. For example, a project analyzing fish populations can be paired with a lesson on the research undertaken by marine biologists. A unit featuring engineering projects in the community can include a class speaker, complete with hardhat and tools.

The more familiar and humanized STEM subjects become to students, the more likely they are to picture themselves in these fields—and the more likely diversity  will increase.


Changing Attitudes

Growing up in Galveston, Texas, Vanessa Westbrook was fascinated by the Gulf of Mexico’s marine life. “I wanted to know everything that dealt with water—how to work with dolphins and examine erosion,” she says. “I discovered the science to shrimping, knowing when to go out, when to make the catch.” A former elementary science teacher, Westbrook now works as a science content specialist at the University of Texas at Austin. 

As a teacher, she tried to involve parents in her efforts to inspire students about the natural world. She created a carnival-style family night of science for the whole family, and partnered with local museums so that lessons taught in school would connect to exhibits students could visit with their families. “When people think of science, they say ‘It was hard. It wasn’t my favorite subject,’” says Westbrook, an African-American woman and committee director of multicultural and equity issues at the National Science Teachers Association. “I wanted to get students and parents to realize we can do science in our backyard.”

Parents can discover the scientist in themselves, Westbrook says. She shares an example of a mother or father who gardens, then realizes: “I’m not a rocket scientist, but I’m a master gardener who can expose my children to an aspect of science: botany. I never knew I was doing botany.”

“The learning is continuous,” Westbrook says. “Kids realize, ‘I don’t just learn in school. I learn outside of school, too.’” And among mathematicians, scientists and engineers, that may be the most important lesson of all.