Supporting STEM Scholars
For more than a decade, my job has been inspiring people with data insights and enabling them through technology systems. I love the work I do, the people I work with, and the economic benefits a career in analytics affords me. As a mixed person with Black ancestry, I’m beating the odds. A recent Pew Research study shows that Black and Latino workers continue to be underrepresented in STEM careers like mine, while white and Asian workers are overrepresented. Black workers comprise 11% of all employed adults, compared with 7% of those in computing occupations. The gap for Latino workers is larger; they comprise 17% of all employed adults but only 8% of computing occupations.
Black and Latino people are missing out as these jobs are expected to outpace jobs in non-STEM fields and often come with higher-paying salaries. Increasing their share in STEM careers would not only help close the racial wealth gap but also benefit the companies who employ them. Diverse teams are more productive than teams where members are very similar to each other.
Why are Black and Latino workers underrepresented in STEM careers?
The higher education pipeline for STEM careers reflects the same disparities as the workforce. And while there are opportunities to address specific challenges in higher education, increasing the number of Blacks and Latinos in STEM careers must start in K-12 classrooms. Research shows that early interest in math and science is a key indicator of whether scholars pursue STEM pathways later. One study of graduate students found that 65% of those asked said their interest in STEM began before middle school.
Unfortunately, despite roughly 2 in 5 (or 40%) of Black and Latino scholars aspire to go to college and name STEM subjects as their favorites, very few are enrolled in courses that would prepare them for college and a STEM career.
This dynamic is not set in stone, and educators can take actions to transform the quality and culture of education for Black and Latino youth, helping set them on a path to successfully pursue their career aspirations.
What role does racism play in this?
Mathematics is a pathway that leads to careers like mine; however, the norms, beliefs, and practices of mathematics education in America perpetuate existing hierarchies that privilege white, middle- and upper-class students, native English speakers, and boys. There are three main barriers to making math education more inclusive:
- Educators’ beliefs that math success depends on innate ability combined with bias rooted in racism results in the belief that Black and Latino students are not “math people”.
- School districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or Native American students receive 13% less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color.
- The current education system has also failed to innovate the way math is taught and missed opportunities to connect teaching and learning more directly to students’ backgrounds and experiences.
Educators need to believe that Black and Latino students are “Math People”
Teachers’ beliefs impact students’ engagement and learning. Dismantling oppressive school structures requires all educators to engage in targeted self-reflection about personal biases and negative narratives around innate math ability. Mathematics teachers should challenge themselves to develop a deep awareness of the history of Black and Latino achievement and contribution to the field of mathematics.
One key role for educators is to appropriately challenge goals for performance to maintain high expectations for scholars. With a No-Nonsense Nurturer mindset that believes all students can succeed, teachers are ready to serve mathematics scholars of color.
Educators need to create learning experiences that Black and Latino students value
Conscious learning requires sustained effort. To learn intentionally, people must want to learn and must see the value in accomplishing what is being asked of them. To support Black and Latino “students’ value of mathematics, educators need to better understand how to use real-world applications in the classroom that are sensitive to race, context, and adolescent cognition.”
This starts with asking interesting and meaningful questions of the students in the classroom. Each scholar brings unique experiences and perspectives to the classroom. When educators develop relationships and learn about scholars’ interests and passions, they gain the understanding needed to make mathematics instruction more valuable to students.
Educators need to enable scholars’ sense of belonging, control, and autonomy
“People learn better when they are aware of and direct their own learning and when they engage in learning activities that pose a challenge.” At CT3, our anti-racism work includes helping educators ask a few key questions:
- What does putting students of color first look like in your school?
- What does it look like when direct language is used to speak about race, power, and privilege?
- When people of color speak their truth to people in power, what action is taken?
When educators listen and pay attention to scholars of color and the influences of culture on the classroom environment, their scholars are better supported in taking charge of their own learning. “By focusing our efforts on redistributing classroom power to students and elevating their assets and deep interests, we can override the legacy conditioning and socialization that mathematics is inherently only for select students.”
K-12 educators can play a critical role in helping this country build a pipeline of passionate and talented Black and Latino scholars into the STEM workforce.
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