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: Equitably Engaging All Students in STEM


Equitably Engaging All Students in STEM2.jpg

by Thomas Roberts, Cathrine Maiorca, and Pamela Chapman

The United States faces a shortage of STEM majors and graduates (National Science Board, 2016). Women and minorities are consistently underrepresented in STEM majors and careers (NSF, 2017). With STEM career opportunities continuing to grow (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018), waiting until high school and college to engage students in STEM will be too late because many students decide STEM is too difficult, boring, or uninteresting before they reach eighth grade (PCAST, 2010). Thus, it is imperative for all students, particularly girls and students of color, to receive high-quality equitable STEM learning experiences beginning in elementary school.

“Equitable learning experiences” and, more broadly, “equity” are often used as buzzwords without clear definitions. In this article, equity is comprised of access, achievement, identity, and power (Gutierrez, 2007). In other words, equity focuses on what resources students have, how students perform, how students relate to and bring their cultural capital into subjects, and how they can use their knowledge to make change. Equitable instruction does not look the same for all students. Instead of giving everyone the exact same instruction, equity requires us to meet students where they are. Some students need to be pushed beyond minimum requirements, while other students may need assistive technology to access the project and to communicate their solutions.

When equitable instruction is seen in action, teachers often say “it’s just good teaching” (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Unfortunately, equitable instruction is not happening regularly for all students. This is not because teachers lack good intentions for their students, but because integrating high-quality STEM experiences in elementary school is not an easy task. This could be because elementary teachers have higher levels of mathematics anxiety (Vinson, 2001), science is not consistently taught at the elementary level (King, Shumow, & Lietz, 2001), or that resources, including time and supplies, are limited (Meyers et al., 2015). There are strategies that can be implemented to promote equitable STEM learning opportunities for all students. In the rest of the article a vignette of a STEM activity used in elementary classrooms is presented, the strategies used for equitable learning are unpacked, and suggestions for how these strategies can be implemented elsewhere are provided.

programming challenge vignette

Jude, a black male fourth grade student, attends a high poverty, high minority school that recently created a STEM lab. The school has been labeled by the state as a “failing” school based on years of low test scores on culturally biased standardized tests. Jude is an inquisitive young man who often uses innovative strategies to solve mathematics problems, but reads slightly below grade level. He enjoys going to the STEM lab where he is able to explore different topics and test different ideas to solve the challenges the teacher gives the class. Nonetheless, the district-mandated benchmark tests classify Jude as in need of remediation.

Ms. Johnson, the STEM teacher, has years of teaching experiences and initially resisted implementing STEM projects due to the open-ended nature of the problems and their correlation to state-mandated tests. After seeing how students made connections to content through their project work, Ms. Johnson now integrates more STEM projects into her instructions. She leverages relationships with parents and the community to gather supplies and to design authentic projects. Ms. Johnson gives Jude’s class the following challenge: use Scratch to create a game that has more than one background, at least one controllable character, and at least one automated component.Image2-500.jpg

Scratch is a free programming language and online community where people of all ages can create a variety of digital products, ranging from animations to games. After a brief introduction on how to use Scratch, Ms. Johnson allows the students to work on their projects. Over the course of the next week, students design, test, and improve their games. Jude excels at creative problem solving. He brainstorms many different designs for the challenge. He quickly figures out how to create automated components in Scratch. As word spread through the classroom of his discovery, other students ask for his help, which he proudly provides. After students have a first iteration of the game, Ms. Johnson encourages students to get feedback from others, both in the class and outside of school. The next morning, Jude begins making some slight changes to what he previously thought was a finished product. He had asked his cousin, a high school student and avid gamer, for feedback on his game and was implementing some of his suggestions.

By the end of the week, Ms. Johnson has 14 video games from the class of 28 students. Some students, including Jude, created their own game, and collaborated with peers for help. Other students collaborated on a game, allowing some students to specialize on specific aspects of the game, such as creating the setting for the game while their partners explored programming. As students shared their games, they focused not just on explaining how to play the game, but on how they created different backgrounds and explained how they improved their programming to control characters or to increase the difficulty of the game. Ultimately, every student in the class not only met Ms. Johnson’s expectations, but exceeded them and created a tangible product, which was proof of their hard work and brilliance.

unpacking the vignette

There are three major strategies the teacher used in the vignette to create an equitable learning environment: project-based learning, valuing and leveraging of student and community knowledge, and focusing on the application of STEM content. The Buck Institute for Education defines project-based learning as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” It is important to note here the emphasis on authentic problem solving, which requires a real-world context, open for interpretation and complex, so that it requires collaboration and leads to multiple solutions (Roberts & Chapman, 2017). Thus, knowing your students is critical because students’ lived experiences vary and influence activities that are meaningful for them. For example, a problem centered on apple picking when there are no apple orchards, or a problem based on pollution at the beach where most students have not visited the beach would be less authentic to those students.

In the vignette, the teacher gave students a challenging  problem, creating a video game. Creating a video game was authentic for her students because of their interest in video games, both at home and as rewards in school. She also gave them time for sustained engagement with their project. She layered the complexity of the problem so that students had to design the setting of the game, learn how to program characters, and learn how to automate aspects of the game. This activity had a low floor, but high ceiling, and limited barriers to participation. Students could specialize in areas where they were most interested, such as programming or creating a background. Students who were really engaged in the activity could exceed the minimum constraints and add more complex programming to their games. Throughout this project, the students were engaged in “doing” instead of passively completing assignments. Moreover, they were engaged in the content practices, such as Standards for Mathematical Practice (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) and the science and engineering practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Throughout the activity, students had to ask questions and define problems, persevere in solving problems, develop models, plan and carry out investigation, and then analyze data from their investigations to improve their video games. Ultimately, because students were able to draw on their interests, develop knowledge and confidence, and produce a tangible product in this project, all students demonstrated success and exceeded minimum expectations. Project-based learning, when implemented with appropriate supports and using problems that are authentic to students’ lives, can be a powerful tool to increase learning for all students.

The teacher also valued and leveraged student and community knowledge when completing this project. The open nature of the task allowed for students’ interests and creativity to be reflected in the final project. As students worked on their projects, they eagerly shared new knowledge with others and helped increase students’ confidence in their own skills. The teacher did not prioritize only the knowledge contained within the classroom. Instead, she had students seek help from others whom the students identified as people who could help them, such as Jude’s cousin. This provided a variety of sources of knowledge and valued input from diverse experiences. Moreover, it allowed for community knowledge to be included in the project and valued in the classroom (Calabrese & Tan, 2018). The teacher’s strategic planning empowered students to create a product reflective of their interests, creativity, and knowledge. Moreover, the final product was improved based on their collaboration with their peers and with family/community members with whom students chose to engage.

Finally, the teacher created opportunities for students to apply STEM content knowledge. For example, in the video game, students were applying knowledge of rays, angles, and lines as they programmed the movement of the characters. Activities that require students to apply content have been shown to be effective for increasing students’ interest in STEM and their subject matter knowledge (Coxon, Nadler, & Dohrman, 2018; Roberts et al., 2018). When students engage in activities that show them how subject matter can be applied, they make more connections to why the content is important to their lives.


All students should have access to high-quality STEM experiences where they are provided with excellent instruction and supports for them to achieve in the different subjects. Just as important, however, is the need for students to have the opportunity to build positive identities in STEM subjects. STEM is often seen as a white male space (Coxon, Nadler, & Dohrman, 2018) where girls and racial and ethnic minorities, particularly black and Latinx students, are not empowered. In this case, the teacher empowered students who are typically excluded from STEM as she used project-based learning, valued student and community knowledge, and focused on the application of STEM content. The sources of knowledge that teachers value, the tasks teachers provide, and the trust teachers build with students influence students’ perseverance and success.


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Roberts, T., Jackson, C., Mohr-Schroeder, M. J., Bush, S. B., Maiorca, C., Cavalcanti, M., ... & Cremeans, C. (2018). Students’ perceptions of STEM learning after participating in a summer informal learning experience. International Journal of STEM Education, 5(1), 35.

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Thomas Roberts is is an Assistant Professor at Bowling Green State University where he teaches elementary education courses. He can be reached at

Cathrine Maiorca is an Assistant Professor at California State University-Long Beach where she teaches elementary mathematics education with an emphasis in STEM. She can be reached at

Pamela Chapman is a Principal with the Harper Woods School District. She can be reached at


This is a refereed article.