The Importance of Inclusive STEM
Over the last two decades, STEM has become a buzzword synonymous with progressive 21st-century learning. First introduced by the National Science Foundation as a more palatable version of their STEM efforts, STEM education quickly became a measure of school performance, as shown by the growing number of federal, state and private certifications available to schools with distinguished programs. For many, STEM seems like the answer to students languishing in systems where teaching and trade preparation methods have fallen to the wayside. However, the advent of STEM, while advantageous to students overall, brought to glaring light the disparities experienced by students in low socioeconomic communities who struggle to make even the traditional ends meet. For these students, the equipment and training required for successful programs are often out of reach.
The “STEM Gap”
Over the last decade, the “STEM gap” has been tackled using a curriculum that requires little equipment to buy in-coding. From Minecraft to Fortnight, the gamification of coding skills has inspired students in underrepresented groups to dive into what was once a more complex and inaccessible field. A 2020 study within the Journal of African American Males in Education found that the gaming language aided in breaking down the barriers middle school Black males experienced with their attitudes toward STEM, resulting in greater engagement with the content(1). This underscores the importance of creating STEM pathways such as robotics and coding and ensuring they are available to all students during their K-12 journey.
Oftentimes, when we talk about this need, we focus on the need to ensure that all kids have the opportunity to secure well-paying jobs in order to thrive in this world and not just survive the human experience. We can also talk about the power of a good career to boost confidence, shape perspective, and break the cycle of poverty for a family or an individual. Our experiences and perspectives shape how we see problems and therefore, the solutions that we create to solve them.
Ideally, solutions should work for all people. At times, easier said than done. A method to achieve solutions that benefit diverse groups of people could be training and equipping students from all backgrounds. Starting with a group of designers and end-users from all walks of life will definitely move the needle to a more inclusive result.
It’s fair to ask, why should we bother with coding? To an untrained eye, the need for coding/computer science could be easily missed. Studying coding speaks to the fundamental value of basic literacy within the digital age. Humans interact with so much technology within our everyday lives. From cell phones to cars, computer science makes our lives remarkably better. The reason why coding becomes so important is that it empowers students to understand and work with the technology around them. Understanding coding demystifies what is going on behind the scenes and ignites the ability to control and create using this technology. In addition, like learning many new languages, it fosters the growth of communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking skills that are important for young minds.
Who is Coding For?
We do not teach reading and writing only to the kids who we think will have something valuable to say. We don’t ask kids if they think they would ever want to read or write later in life in order to put them into literacy programs. No, quite the opposite. Our actions demonstrate a belief that all students benefit from a basic level of literacy regardless of their background, interests, or future ambition. With this in mind, we know that coding is an increasingly fundamental skill set as we move into the future. Many people compare it to learning a language and indeed, that is an apt comparison.
The Low Floor
We must work to provide access for students of all experiences and abilities, not just the ones who express a love of coding at an early age. This is the low floor. The following barriers need to be addressed in order to create access:
- Device Access- Every student needs a device despite circumstances.
- Internet Connectivity- Every student should have access to the internet despite socioeconomic conditions and/or geography
- Teacher Training – Every teacher should have access to quality training in both hardware and software.
- Industry Exposure – Every student should have an opportunity to work with or observe first hand the work done within the industry.
The High Ceiling
Additionally, it is imperative that we highlight a clear path forward that challenges students to develop skills and passions in coding and robotics and takes them to new heights. This is the high ceiling.
- Authentic Achievement- Programs will need to promote the solving of adult-world challenges that are relevant to the community and rooted in the problems of today.
- Industry Engagement- Local companies and professionals will need to engage in the classroom through experiences such as career talks, mentoring programs, and labs.
- Student-Centered Learning – Students will need to be provided with access to a self-paced, learner-centric approach that will increase rigor and relevance.
- Representation Matters – Students will need to be given the opportunity to see different race and gender representation in coding/STEM fields.
Sustaining a Solution
Already a number of nonprofits have developed with a focus on equitable access to coding. Code.org, for instance, is widely used in the PK-12 setting as a supplement to the current digital learning curriculum. And MITs Scratch program allows students from nearly 200 countries to use coding as a digital expression of themselves. However, access can’t depend solely on the work of niche organizations.
Schools need a reliable, longitudinal relationship with partners both within and beyond school walls to ensure students get the access they need. Moreover, these partnerships have to be somewhat mutually beneficial to all within them, rather than a charitable relationship. Some programs, like ScienceATL and AAAS’s STEM Professional School Partnership Program, do this by creating a pipeline directly from STEM professionals to classrooms, allowing for students to have direct experiences with a wide range of STEM fields.
A similar approach can be taken with coding specifically and isn’t far from reach. Mega tech corporations like Google and Microsoft have already begun this approach by creating partnerships with colleges and universities that serve underrepresented groups. The Tech Exchange program began as a small collaboration between Howard University and Google to provide a direct pathway to tech jobs through an exchange program. Now the program includes students from schools around the country that serve black and brown students. It will ultimately be up to education policymakers to pave the way for systemwide programs like the Tech Exchange. On the K-12 level, program collaborations like the one developed by CoderZ and Amazon provide opportunities for students to develop both soft and hard skills needed for a future in coding and tech. Amazon Future Engineer takes the Tech Exchange model a step further by providing educators with ongoing professional development, as well as campus support for educators and students within the program.
In naming the many stakeholders that are positioned to foster equity in STEM, it is important to recognize that everyone has a part to play in this journey. It will take policymakers, however, to push these programs from unique opportunities to standards within education. Moreover, education systems will need an informed body of parents and advocates to see these programs spread systemwide.
With the COVID-19 virus changing the landscape of education, now is the moment to propel coding into a universally recognized pillar of education.
The opportunity is clear, but the question remains: Will we act on it?
(1) Davis, J., & Allen, K. M. (2020). Culturally Responsive Mentoring and Instruction for Middle School Black Boys in STEM Programs. Journal of African American Males in Education, 11(2).