Engaging Black and Brown Students In STEM: Dr. Shawn Joseph Discusses The Causes of Underrepresentationin the K-12 STEM Field

Creating learning opportunities that foster success for Black and Brown students in STEM fields is a vital goal of many educators. However, in the United States, there continues to be a gap in the number of STEM graduates our colleges produce, particularly amongst Black and Brown students. Increasing the number of Black and Brown STEM graduates requires rethinking the structure and function of our educational system and its approach to teaching students. Dr. Shawn Joseph, former urban superintendent and current Co-Director of the AASA/Howard University Urban Superintendent Academy,  believes that we can improve our STEM pipelines by understanding the nature of the problem and developing a thoughtful, innovative plan to address the issue.

Using System’s Theory to Understand the Gaps in Black and Brown STEM Participation

The under representation of Black and Brown students in STEM can be looked at as an ecological phenomenon.  In other words, we must look at the way we think about the problems related to STEM participation through the interrelationship of Black and Brown students and how they engage with their environments.  Dr. Joseph believes that looking at this problem through an ecological model will allow educators to better understand the complex, intractable real-world issues that result in a limited number of Black and Brown students ultimately earning college degrees in STEM fields, and it can explain the disparities and inequities we currently see.

Uri Bronfenbrenner, a Russian psychologist, divided a person's environment into five different systems: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem.  The microsystem is the system closest to a student, and it relates to the interactions between an individual and the immediate environment, including family, school, and work settings. The Mesosystem represents interconnections among these settings, such as the collaborative relationship between parents and teachers that will affect a student’s motivational aspiration to pursue STEM courses in school. Both the micro- and mesosystems are nested within an exosystem that can directly impact micro- or mesosystems without the student’s direct participation or involvement in the environmental layer (e.g., a school superintendent). The macrosystem captures the influence of broader cultural blueprints, such as the belief systems, worldviews, or cultural identities, that envelop the other system ecologies. Finally, the chronosystem captures the influence of time and transition on development, such as the impact of changing schools, or episodes of social crisis, such as the impact of the Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19)pandemic on the transition to virtual learning.

Microsystem Challenges with Black and Brown Students in STEM

The microsystem represents the relationships between the developing person and the environment in an immediate setting containing that person, such as home, school, or workplace. It is here that Dr. Shawn Joseph believes educators can look closely into the initial challenges facing Black and Brown students in STEM.  Dr. Joseph shares, “It is essential for school districts to begin helping parents to feel comfortable with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Many kids come into school hearing their parents discuss how they hated math and science, and as a result, kids enter school with a deficit in thinking about those subjects.  More importantly, kids need to be exposed to STEM as early as pre-school.  STEM initiatives must be as important asReading initiatives, and schools can play a more direct role in educating and supporting parents to cultivate curiosity about STEM and providing high-quality curricula and products for families to use at home.”

In school environments, teachers matter, particularly in the primary years.  Dr. Joseph shared, “Most Pre-K and early learning teachers are not adequately prepared in STEM.  School systems cannot rely on colleges of education to prepare teachers in this area.  Itmust be a priority for the school district to invest in comprehensive professional development for teachers to strengthen their know-how in inspiring inquiry in the STEM fields.  A small investment will return great dividends.”

Mesosystem Challenges with Black and Brown Students in STEM

The Mesosystem represents “the interrelations that happen among different settings in an emerging adult’s life. Regarding school-aged children, the mesosystem typically encompasses interactions among family, school, and peer groups. The Mesosystem can cover the interaction of two or more microsystems, such as parents and school staff.  We know that parent engagement impacts how motivated a student is to learn.  The more parents engage with the school and collaborate with teachers, the more motivated a student will be to learn.  School systems are wise to invest in parent academies and are wise to help parents better advocate for the success of their students.  All parents do not know how to best engage with teachers and schools. More importantly, not all teachers know how to best engage with parents, particularly across cultures.  Most Schools of education do not offer undergraduate courses in family engagement or teach teachers how to build relationships with parents.  This becomes even more of a challenge as teachers try to develop relationships across races/cultures.  The majority of Black and Brown students have majority white teachers. If teachers are not trained to connect with parents, and parents do not know how to best advocate for their children, the gaps we see in motivation and performance will persist. This is another easy area for school districts to invest in to change the current trajectory of STEM success.

Exosystem Challenges With Black and Brown Students in STEM

Areas Of schooling that relate to the exosystem would be the social structures that impact students, such as policy issues, teacher education programs, and certification boards.  Superintendents and school boards should use their influence and political power to influence state policy related to teacher certification and requirements for licensure.  As was aforementioned, teachers learn very little about parent engagement, and as it relates to learning about STEM, requirements vary widely from state to state.  Again, schools of education differ significantly in quality, and the requirements for pre-service teachers to learn how to incorporate technology and the requirements for learning science and mathematics are limited. Superintendents and school boards can present compelling case studies and examples to state legislatures and state boards of education who can dramatically strengthen requirements for training in parent engagement and the sciences for pre-service teachers. Ensuring that pre-service teachers learn anti-racist pedagogy and can connect and communicate effectively with a diverse student body is a major shortcoming in school districts across the nation, and strengthening this would have a meaningful impact on STEM learning by Black and Brown students.

Superintendents and school boards can also work with their business communities to support media campaigns encouraging the community to embrace STEM initiatives.  Media has a tremendous impact on the actions and motivations of students.  Intentional Effort to publicize training opportunities, educate about the power and importance of STEM, and working to influence public opinion around STEM activities is critical in bringing awareness and promoting action between parents and schools related to STEM activities.

Macrosystem Challenges With Black and Brown Students in STEM

The Macrosystem represents cultural beliefs that may hinder Black and Brown students’ participation in STEM fields. This is a missing element of most school systems’ plans as they work to address STEM participation in school districts.  We know that America has historically disadvantaged Black and Brown students through policies, beliefs, and practices that have not centered them and their talents.  Racial injustice and structural discrimination have created foundations within school communities that have resulted in structural oppression, impacting hiring practices, funding, and curricula that students can access.  Any STEM plan that does not alter a community's belief system through an analysis of hiring practices in STEM, ensuring appropriate adequate resources for STEM, and ensuring access to high-quality STEM curricula in all schools, will fall short of success.  Black and Brown students must be taught in a way that validates the strengths they bring to the educational environment through collaborative and affirming pedagogy. Students Should be expected to be exposed to rigorous and engaging STEM curricula beginning at Pre-k to promote lasting change.

Chronosystem Challenges With Black and Brown Students in STEM

The chronosystem represents change or consistency over time, not only in the characteristics of the students but also in their surrounding setting and environment.  As this domain relates to planning for Black and Brown students’ success in STEM, we must be thoughtful in planning a solid Pre-K through 12 programs for STEM excellence in our schools.  In many districts nationwide,STEM activities are not connected or coordinated through a Pre-K continuum.  Most school districts begin offering a coherent STEM program at the high school level, but strong, coordinated, integrated programming is non-existent across elementary and middle school programming.  STEM is still seen as a program offered for select students or in select schools instead of being universally integrated, like reading instruction.  More work must be done looking at the progression of students’ STEM skills over time and in a logical, coordinated fashion to see dramatic changes occur.

Exemplars of School Districts Doing Exemplary STEM Work

Several school districts across the US have partnered with 21st CentEd to accelerate the development of a comprehensive Pre-K-12 STEM plan. Founder and CEO Marlon Lindsay shared, “Comprehensive STEM education goes beyond implementing a standardized program. It involves recognizing the new educational landscape, ensuring ubiquitous access for students, empowering educators through design-infused pedagogy, and engaging the community in fostering students' skill development for a vibrant 21st-century economy. Traditional education systems alone cannot meet the demands of 21st-century education; we need a collective effort to provide a customized and comprehensive approach.”  

In East Ramapo, NY, the comprehensive STEM journey began by prioritizing teacher development and curriculum integration. The district's leadership recognized the need to upskill educators while simultaneously designing a curriculum that could be integrated across different subject areas. In Bridgeport, CT, the focus was on providing all students access to highly engaging STEM experiences through the 21stCentEd platform, employing an interest-based approach. To reach as many students as possible,the district partnered with afterschool programs, enabling students to participate in STEM experiences early, often, and everywhere. Similarly, in the Bronx, NY, the decentralized school district model required individualized plans for comprehensive STEM in each school. To galvanize the district and community, a borough-wide STEM Fest was organized by 21stCentEd at Yankee Stadium. Bringing comprehensive STEM to a school district is a multifaceted process that typically spans 3–5 years. It doesn’t matter where you start as long as you start somewhere.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Shawn Joseph believes investing in STEM resources can lead to a brighter and more prosperous future. He sees Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems’ theory as an important framework to help school leaders effectively plan to ensure more Black and Brown students are appropriately engaged in high-quality STEM work.  Dr. Joseph concluded, “We can create the STEM future we want to see within our Black and Brown communities.  We know what needs to be done.  The question becomes, are we willing to look at ourselves in the mirror and correct the historical challenges we have faced with a renewed commitment to excellence for all children.” The first step in this journey is for school districts to consider a multifaceted approach to addressing comprehensive STEM.  Once a clear vision and clear goals are developed, districts can begin the journey of inspiring more extraordinary STEM achievement.