A Genius Approach to Forging a More Inclusive STEM Education Future

By Joel Riciputi, posted on

A powerful conversation on removing barriers to STEM education took place earlier this week at the Commonwealth Club of Silicon Valley with no less than a panel of MacArthur Foundation Fellows also known as MacArthur Geniuses. From learning differences to gender and race issues, the panelists did not hold back on their recommendations for nurturing STEM learners. The discussion hammered home that it is our shared responsibility to think creatively about how to empower students and get them excited about STEM in ways that work for them. After all, the stakes are high – it’s our collective future.

The panel included a range of perspectives from education, tech and social sector leaders who look at the world differently, doing their part to support inclusive STEM education. Panelists included Debbie Bial, founder and President of the Posse Foundation; Jim Fruchterman, Founder and CEO of Benetech; Manu Prakash a Stanford University professor and physical biologist; and Betsy Corcoran, Co-Founder and CEO of EdSurge, was the moderator.


Making Inclusive STEM Education a Reality

What are steps we can take to empower learners and to make inclusive STEM education a reality? The consistent thread from the panel was the imperative of increasing engagement in STEM education through an ability-centric lens. That approach is how we can engage girls, kids of color and those with learning differences or disabilities to develop and contribute their talents not just to STEM pursuits, but to society as a whole. Here are some highlights:

  • Give all students access to simple, low cost, yet powerful tools. Let’s empower children to experience STEM in ways that work for them, knowing that each child has unique learning needs. Give them the tool set to succeed and it can benefit everyone.
  • Avoid putting learners in a box based on a single characteristic such as a learning difference like dyslexia. We need to change our perceptions to focus on strengths, not deficits. That learning difference or disability just might be their biggest asset!
  • Get involved as an advocate, role model, or mentor. We need more people to “pound the table” to open up the doors of opportunity for those who need it.
  • Look beyond traditional measures of success (like SAT scores) that give access to education. Creativity, initiative, leadership, and drive – those traits need to be part of the equation.

Benetech’s Approach to Empowering Learners

How does Benetech look at the world differently? Three words sum it up: Impact. Communities. Joy. As the first deliberately nonprofit tech company, Benetech has been taking a different approach to empowering communities with software from the get go. Our team takes great joy in the social good that creates. We believe that access to information is a universal human right. And we want to give all learners the power of STEM to change the world for the better by creating inclusive and engaging learning environments that can adapt to the needs of individual learners.

How? We offer inclusive solutions to help students and educators unlock STEM education including:

  • Bookshare, the largest online library of accessible books including STEM materials
  • A suite of tools that allow students and teachers to personalize math and other STEM learning experiences for different types of learners.

While our STEM work is primarily for people with learning differences or disabilities, it benefits all learners by addressing a student’s individual needs.

Changing the Way We Equip Students for Success

MacArthur Geniuses are chosen in part for their exceptional creativity. That was demonstrated at the Commonwealth Club event and in the panelists’ work, but the real message is that we all need to follow their lead and truly think about the world differently, including when it comes to STEM education.  Every child wants to learn and be successful. We do not need to change them. Rather, we need to change the way we equip them for success. That is our responsibility whether as educators, technologists, social entrepreneurs, mentors or any other role for that matter. Remember, it’s our collective future.


Want to learn about all the ideas generated during the post-panel STEM Idea Jam? Check out all the ideas in our new slideshow, “Inclusive STEM: Actionable Ideas from Silicon Valley Thought Leaders.