ITEEA The Elementary STEM Journal, Vol. 23, Issue 4
PublisherInternational Technology and Engineering Educators Association, Reston
ReleasedMay 1, 2019
The Elementary STEM Journal, Volume 23, Issue 4 - May, 2019

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Article: Equity in STEM Education


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by Carol M. Giuriceo, and Charles H. McLaughlin, Jr.

STEM/STEAM overview

Jobs requiring STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and STEAM (arts/design added to STEM disciplines) knowledge and expertise at all educational levels continue to grow. Yet participation by groups historically underrepresented in STEM/STEAM is not following the same trajectory (NSF 2018).

According to the National Center for Science and Engineering, the highest percentage of science and engineering degrees earned by women in 2016 are in psychology, biological sciences, and social sciences. Computer science, engineering, and physical sciences have low shares among women degree recipients. Women completed bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics with a share over 40% (NSF, 2019). 

Similarly, students from historically underrepresented groups receive a low percentage of science and engineering degrees. Latinx students earned 13.5% of science and 10% of engineering bachelor’s degrees with black/African-American students earning 9% and 4% respectively. The highest concentration of science and technology degrees earned by Latinx in 2016 were psychology, social sciences, and biological sciences, with low representation in physical sciences and mathematics/statistics. Black/African American students also have high shares in psychology and social sciences. Bachelor’s degrees in computer science have increased over the last 20 years, but the other science and engineering degrees have declined, with the most noticeable difference in mathematics and statistics (NSF 2019).

An understanding of STEM, however, goes beyond workforce issues. All people need the content, skills, and practices of STEM to participate and contribute to today’s rapidly changing society, so STEM literacy represents not an elective but an essential requirement for all students in Grades K-12. According to the National Academy of Sciences, STEM literacy can be defined as: (1) awareness of the interconnected roles of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in today’s society; (2) familiarity with some of the fundamental concepts and knowledge in each area; and (3) ability to apply STEM to one’s own life and critically evaluate content as it relates to contemporary issues (Honey, M., Pearson, G. & Schweingruber, H., 2014).

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In order for students to succeed in STEM studies, teachers must recognize academic inequities and their causes. Among the most glaring national issues are the lack of access to state-of-the-art scientific and technological resources and the absence of innovative and best teaching practices in communities with low social economic status, high poverty rates, and underrepresented populations. Achieving equity in STEM fields must begin with acknowledgement of the community and its cultural makeup. Awareness of students’ backgrounds and their perceived place in the school can inform a teacher of the management of instructional options necessary to assist students with success and retention in a STEM program and its associated coursework. Hunter, et al. (2010) stated, “Learning environments—the curriculum, specific activities, interactions with peers and instructors, and the overall learning community—can be created to support diverse learners and equity” (p. 53). Creating support systems may require teachers to scrutinize their own views on diversity and equity. Additionally, STEM teachers must prove that all students, not just those that look like them, have an equal opportunity to learn and succeed. As school populations become more diverse, teachers must adapt to the cultural tapestry that makes up the typical classroom. The role of developing cultural competency must become an important factor in the practice of every teacher who stands before a STEM classroom.

The narrative of instructional materials must match and augment the images used to make cultural diversity visible in STEM. That is, it is important to move away from superficial representations of diversity to more culturally and socially relevant activities that promote students’ engagement, agency, and social responsibility (STEM Teaching Tools, 2019).

Finally, Ladson-Billings (1995), an early researcher and initiator of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP), reported on classroom observations she made of the characteristics of culturally relevant teaching. During her research she deduced that teachers who practiced CRP:

  • Believed that all the students were capable of academic success.
  • Saw their pedagogy as art—unpredictable, always in the process of becoming.
  • Saw themselves as members of the community.
  • Saw teaching as a way to give back to the community.
  • Saw teaching as “mining” or pulling out knowledge (pp. 478–479).

She also recounted that successful teachers practicing CRP, “consciously create social interactions to help them meet the previously mentioned criteria of academic success, cultural competence, and critical consciousness.” They:

  • Maintain fluid student-teacher relationships.
  • Demonstrate a connectedness with all of the students.
  • Develop a community of learners.
  • Encourage students to learn collaboratively and be responsible for one another (Ladson-Billings p. 480).

These practices, while not exhaustive, provide some guidance for developing an equitable classroom based on fairness and cultural awareness of the students who collaborate and learn together in our classrooms and laboratories.

elements of equity

Equity in STEM education represents an ongoing process that requires an intentional focus and commitment to embedding elements of equity in all facets of STEM education. Equity demands more than equal opportunity for groups historically underrepresented. Multiple interconnected factors influence students’ attitudes, perceptions, understanding, interest, and empowerment in STEM, and educators in K-12 must acknowledge that a one-size message or opportunity does not fit all. Five elements of equity will be addressed to examine how multiple programs in Rhode Island are addressing the continuing issue of equity.

1.     Accessible Opportunities – Promoting equity requires more than just offering STEM opportunities. In addition to providing accommodations and modifications for students with special needs, practical factors such as transportation to venues, work schedules of students and caregivers, locations of events, and associated costs are some of the issues that need to be considered.

2.     Empowering Physical and Social Environment – The environment plays an important role in learning both in physical and social/emotional ways. The arrangement of tables and desks in a room promotes or discourages a collaborative space where the educator is positioned either as the facilitator/leader of a team or an authority figure. Additionally, students who feel comfortable are empowered to ask for assistance when needed. 

3.     Continuing Support – After enrollment or recruitment into a class, workshop, or special event, lines of communication between students and educators need to remain open with all students but especially with students who may benefit from one-on-one conversations. Awareness of student perceptions, peer attitudes, and other challenges is essential.  Multiple elements, including but not limited to the home, school, community, and media affect students’ view of their place within STEM and must be considered when offering support.

4.     Foundational Knowledge – STEM represents an educational approach that focuses on multidisciplinary teaching with emphasis on real life. Concepts are embedded into open-ended projects that allow for flexibility with assessments that can be modified to fit student needs.

5.     Gender and Culturally Aware Pedagogy – In addition to providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and action/expression for all learners, educators need to emphasize an incremental view of intelligence (growth mindset), counter stereotypes, monitor small group work for equitable distribution of roles, and include prior student experience in lessons (CAST, 2018).

These five elements do not represent a comprehensive view of equity practices. However, they provide a structured way to frame an initial discussion of addressing equity issues in STEM.

Rhode Island and equity

The Rhode Island STEAM Center at Rhode Island College (RIC) serves as a central educational hub and statewide resource focused on building partnerships, advocating for increased STEM/STEAM literacy, and promoting and implementing research-based practices, programs, and special events. The STEAM Center believes in a "it takes a village" approach and partners with higher education, K-12, business and industry, nonprofit organizations, community-based groups, and government agencies to build long-term interest and active engagement in STEM/STEAM among ALL Rhode Islanders through the continual sharing and exchange of knowledge, ideas, and experiences.

Using the five elements above, three programs/initiatives will be discussed. The STEAM Center was/is involved with all three initiatives.

Rhode Island Highlights 
STEM in the Middle

Until the program ended two years ago, the Tech Collective, Rhode Island’s information technology association, organized the annual STEM in the Middle Workshop & Career Expo. This half-day event brought together middle school girls from school districts near the capital city of Providence to participate in hands-on workshops led by STEM/STEAM female (and male) industry professionals from across the state and Rhode Island College faculty.

During one of these sessions, the students were invited to participate in a design activity within the Langevin Center for Design, Innovation, and Advanced manufacturing. The girls were provided instruction on using design software to create a small personalized laser-etched plaque. The brief lesson identified connections between the practice of design, the products that result from designing, and design opportunities available in Rhode Island. As we moved to the laser, a discussion about the use of lasers to create products requiring precision ensued. Technical details about our system were given to the girls. Since access to high technology was not available to many of the urban schools represented, our student visitors were full of questions and ideas for the use of laser cutting/etching. In one instance, we had a student who asked if she could send us a design to be cut for her. She dutifully sent the design, which we cut to her specifications and then mailed back to her. These are the connections that the STEM in the Middle program sought to make.

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Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI)

CS4RI, a state initiative launched in 2016 to bring high-quality computer science (CS) learning experiences to all students in Rhode Island, continues to thrive as a partnership between state government, state department of education, K-12 schools, higher education, private industry, and nonprofits. CS4RI builds educator capacity by providing district teachers access to a menu of CS professional development opportunities, developing CS K-12 pathways, and supporting districts with implementation strategies and resources. Equity is embedded in all plans and activities.

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Million Women Mentors – Rhode Island Affiliate

Million Women Mentors (MWM) is a national movement with the shared goal of attracting and retaining more women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields through high-quality mentorships. The Rhode Island affiliate includes members from industry, education, community-based organizations, and nonprofits across Rhode Island and focuses on building awareness for mentorship, partnering with mentoring organizations, and providing outreach to students in Rhode Island.

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levels of equity

For simplicity, the tables used above identify ways the listed programs approach equity.  However, they should also list at what level of success they are situated. Are the programs/initiatives emerging (no serious effort), approaching (some effort), developing (adequate effort) or mature (strong effort) as they relate to issues of equity?

For example, the STEM in the Middle program addressed accessible opportunities by inviting students during the school day so teachers can take advantage of the buses available to schools. No student was excluded due to lack of transportation or other conflicting commitments. This effort could be judged to be approaching since some obstacles to participation were eliminated. However, much more can be done. In another example, gender and culturally relevant pedagogy may be classified as developing in the CS4RI initiative since professional development workshops, online courses, and supplemental resources focusing on broadening participation, effective and inclusive practices, and equity are continually and frequently offered to teachers. However, there is a need for improvement since implementation of these practices is voluntary and no follow-up measurement is applied. Perhaps additional columns are needed in the table to illustrate the complex process.

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equity—an ongoing process

Equity in STEM/STEAM in Rhode Island continues to be an ongoing process. 

Equity is not . . .    

o     A milestone to be reached or

o     A box to be checked or

o     One-size-fits all. 

It is a continuous journey with different levels of success. Equity in STEM/STEAM is a complex issue that requires a multipronged approach in response to, but not limited to, differing student needs and capabilities, fluid environmental and social factors, and inequal resources and support. In Rhode Island, the challenge of equity in STEM/STEAM has been identified and acknowledged. Work continues as we address this challenge.   


CAST, Inc. (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines, version 2.2. Retrieved from

Honey, M., Pearson, G., & Schweingruber, H. (Eds.). (2014). STEM integration in K-12 education: Status, prospects, and agenda for research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Hunter, L., Seagroves, S., Metevier, AJ., Kluger-Bell, B., Raschke, L., & Jonsson P. (2010). Diversity and equity in the lab: Preparing scientists and engineers for Inclusive teaching in courses and research environments. Learning from Inquiry in Practice. ASP Conference Series, Vol. 436, 50-68. Retrieved from

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491. Retrieved from

National Science Foundation, National Science Board. (2018). Science and engineering indicators 2018. Retrieved from

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2019). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019. Special Report NSF 19-304. Alexandria, VA. Retrieved from

UW Institute for Science + Math Education. (2019). STEM teaching tools. Why it is crucial to make cultural diversity visible in STEM education. Retrieved from


Carol M. Giuriceo serves as the director of the Rhode Island STEAM Center at Rhode Island College.

Charlie McLaughlin is a Professor of Technology Education and the Coordinator for the Langevin Center for Design, Innovation, and Advanced Manufacturing at Rhode Island College. He can be reached at