ITEEA The Elementary STEM Journal, Vol. 24, Issue 4
PublisherInternational Technology and Engineering Educators Association, Reston, VA
ReleasedMay 1, 2020
The Elementary STEM Journal, Volume 24, Issue 4 - May, 2020

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Article - STEM + C: Integrative STEM Learning Embedded With Cultural/Heritage Algorithms

STEM + C: Integrative STEM Learning Embedded With Cultural/Heritage Algorithms34704859.jpg

by Virginia R. Jones, DTE


Underrepresented populations, or underrepresented minorities (URMs) are important participants in developing the STEM pipeline. Using the cultural heritage of our melting pot of learners highlights how STEM components are embedded in many of the indigenous traditions. These “heritage algorithms” (Culturally Situated Design Tools, n.d.) help overcome inherent misconceptions about race and gender in teaching integrative STEM by engaging students by exploring heritage artifacts through nontraditional activities. This approach makes the STEM learning tangible, relatable, and arouses the curiosity in these learners to explore and become more invested in integrative STEM activities and careers.

research and need

How does culture affect integrative STEM learning as well as learning in general? A critique often voiced regarding our approach to engineering ethics or practices evolves around a “black-box” approach, which doesn’t thoroughly provide insight to the intricate nature of technological practice (Nia, et al, 2019).  Practices we employ in integrative STEM learning do not exist in a vacuum but are interwoven in the daily lives of all in our society. It is understood that our society is a melting pot of cultures—a tradition valued by most Americans—and understanding that leads us to appreciate that our methods of developing technological practices, specifically teaching practices, must be cognizant of all cultures, traditions, and heritage artifacts of our learners. “In order to be able to address this concern, this study suggests that most technology development practices be understood first of all as multi-aspect systems—involving different peoples, institutions, companies, and infrastructural entities” (Nia, et al., 2019, p. 59).   

STEM + C (culture) is a construct that must be explored to ensure our underrepresented populations engage, participate, and aspire to STEM learning and careers. One group, The Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDT) team, had a mission to promote justice and equality by exploring cultural or heritage algorithms in Science (CSDT, n.d.). Originally funded through a National Science Foundation grant awarded to University of Michigan, Principal Investigator Dr. Eglash, its genesis was based on the concept of Ethnomathematics in 2000 (CSDT, n.d.). Originally focused on engaging learners with mathematical concepts, it morphed into using technology tools coupled with cultural artifacts to engage learners in many different areas.  

Untitled-1-300-sm-transp.pngFor Latina students, especially females, limited participation is prevalent due to tensions between groups of participants versus cultural community values. Utilizing the “making and doing” process “touted for its potential to democratize STEM” (Nation & Durán, 2019, p. 1) showed that this process is problematic for young women of color, often limiting their aspirations for continuing in a STEM career (Nation & Durán, 2019, p. 1). Similarly, Native American students are more likely to drop out of high school (McFarland, et al., 2018). The inequities in STEM education are addressed partially by enforcing state standards such as Minnesota benchmarks (Minnesota Department of Education , 2009) shown below:

Untitled-2-300-sm-transp.pngStandard specifically states: “Understand that everybody can use evidence to learn about the natural world, identify patterns in nature, and develop tools. For example: Ojibwe and Dakota knowledge and use of patterns in the stars to predict and plan” (Deustua et al., 2019, p. 2).

Recognizing cultural heritage by using a teaching methodology that embraces it is key to ensuring student success and engagement. Kana’iaupuni et al. (2010) stated: “education is both an individual and a collective experience, where engagement and success can be enhanced and enriched via strength-based approaches, which integrate the culture and community of learners” (p. 2). The study concluded:

First, culture-based education (CBE) positively impacts student social emotional well-being (e.g., identity, self-efficacy, social relationships). Second, enhanced socio-emotional well-being, in turn, positively affects math and reading test scores. Third, CBE is positively related to math and reading test scores for all students, and particularly for those with low socio-emotional development, most notably when supported by overall CBE use within the school (Kana’iaupuni et al., 2010, p. 1).

heritage algorithmsUntitled-3-300-sm-transp.pngUntitled-4-300-sm-transp.png

What is a heritage algorithm, and how can one use it to make learning more tangible and relatable to all learners, especially underrepresented learners? One defines an algorithm broadly as a set of steps or procedures to accomplish an end, or a problem-solving method (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). These problem-solving methods using heritage as a context can engage learners to explore their heritage along with working on current real-world problems. Brain-based research proves that using tools, such as these heritage algorithms, to guide the “doing and making” of STEM activities equips learners to be STEM problem finders (Bevins & Jones, 2020). Using cultural heritage tools assists in developing the emotional, psychological connection needed to embrace STEM learning. Emotional intelligence or quotient (EQ) is an important construct to developing a lifelong learning path inclusive of integrative STEM learning.   

Exploring the work done by CSDT and the Native Sky Watchers (NSW), one can draw upon multiple ways of using mathematics, science, and technological skills in conjunction with historical readings in teaching and applying integrative STEM learning, or STEM + C. Using artifacts such as weaving, bead looms, manbetu, corn rows, or graffiti (CSDT, n.d.) in integrative STEM lessons can engage learners on a deeper level as they learn the history, the cultural significance and value to the culture, and practical applications to our current society.  

Educators can use heritage algorithms to expand their STEM teaching. As stated in Bell (2018), educators are “are increasingly comfortable with the notion of developing their practice informally and independently,” and developing their STEM practice can be “used as a mechanism to share and subsequently shape new STEM teaching and learning pedagogical principles and to engage in interdisciplinary pedagogical discourse with the aim of enhancing professional practice” (p. 734).


Integrative STEM educators provide connections to real-world learning and careers of the future through their classroom approaches to STEM learning. Adding in cultural components engages underrepresented populations in ways that traditional making and doing activities in our current STEM toolbox cannot do. Exciting these underrepresented learners by embracing their heritage builds a level of confidence, a desire to learn, and an emotional connection to the value of STEM careers and STEM learning.  


Bell, D., Morrison-Love, D., Wooff, D., & McLain, M. (2018). STEM education in the twenty-first century: Learning at work—an exploration of design and technology teacher perceptions and practices. International Journal of Technology & Design Education, 28(3), 721–737.

Bevins, S. & Jones, V. (2020). EQ + IQ = STEM problem finders.  ITEEA 2020 conference proceedings.

Deustua, S., Eastwood, K., ten Kate, I. L., Lee, A. S., Wilson, W., Tibbetts, J., Gawboy, C., Meyer, A., Buck, W., Knutson-Kolodzne, J., & Pantalony, D. (2019). Celestial calendar-paintings and culture-based digital storytelling: Cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, STEM/STEAM resources for authentic astronomy education engagement. EPJ Web of Conferences, 200, N.PAG.

Kana’iaupuni, S., Ledward, B., Jensen, U. (2010). Culture-based education and its relationship to student outcomes. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools, Research & Evaluation Division.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (n.d.). Algorithm.

McFarland, J., Cui, J., Rathbun, A., and Holmes, J. (2018). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 2018 (NCES 2019-117). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Minnesota Department of Education. (2009). Minnesota academic standards – Science K-12. /index.htm

Nation, J. M., & Durán, R. P. (2019). Home is where the heart is: Latinx youth expression and identity in a critical maker project. Mind, Culture & Activity, 26(3), 249–265.

Nia, M. G., de Vries, M. J., & Harandi, M. F. (2019). Technology development as a normative practice: A meaning-based approach to learning about values in engineering—damming as a case Study. Science & Engineering Ethics, 25(1), 55–82.


Virginia R. Jones, Ph.D., DTE, Dean of Student Success and Enrollment Services at Patrick Henry Community College, is co-field editor of The Elementary STEM Journal and ITEEA President-Elect. She can be reached at