Making STEM Education Inclusive to All

By Laura Deck, posted on

As technological innovation continues to affect virtually every field and industry, the demand for workers with expertise in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) keeps increasing. With higher than average wages and lower than average unemployment rates, STEM careers are highly desirable for today’s graduates. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 1.1 million computing-related job openings in the U.S. by 2024, but more than two-thirds of these jobs could go unfilled due to the insufficient pool of candidates. Three groups that are significantly underrepresented in this pool are women, minorities, and people with disabilities.

Expanding the STEM Pipeline

The dearth of women in the STEM labor pool is already a source of much debate and attention. According to the U.S. Department of Education, women earn only 35 percent of the undergraduate degrees in STEM, even though they account for almost 60 percent of all college graduates. And that statistic hides differences across STEM fields, with women earning about 40 percent of the degrees in mathematics, but only 18 percent of those in computer sciences or engineering.

An African American woman sits in a classroom with other students.

When we turn our lens to minorities and persons with disabilities, the exclusion becomes even more acute. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, Latinas occupied only 2 percent of computing jobs in 2016, and a 2017 National Science Foundation report stated that of the 11 percent of undergraduates with a disability, only 25 percent of those students enroll in STEM programs. As the STEM field clamors to add the expertise of those underrepresented, expanding access to STEM education, starting in elementary school, is a win for everyone.

Getting Kids Excited about STEM

How do we engage and accommodate diverse learners to give all students the opportunity to pursue careers in STEM? One barrier, often implicit, is negative stereotypes and attitudes that assume that women, minorities, or persons with disabilities are incapable of doing math or science. There isn’t a silver bullet to overcoming such stereotypes and the myriad of other barriers faced by women, minorities, and people with disabilities, but there are foundational strategies that apply to all learners.

Megan Smith, former Chief Technology Officer in the Obama Administration, offers four ways to get girls interested in STEM, but her suggestions also apply to minorities and people with disabilities.

  • Try it – let kids play and experiment with STEM in a joyful environment that is not boring or intimidating
  • Know what it’s for – help kids understand what the technology and science is for and why it’s important
  • Offer encouragement – adults should suggest STEM classes and encourage students to give them a try
  • See yourself – students need to see themselves in STEM fields with role models

Encouraging kids to play, to understand the importance of STEM, to take STEM courses, and to connect with STEM role models are fundamental strategies to increasing diversity in STEM. The next step is keeping students engaged.

Driving Engagement through Inclusive Learning

It is critical to enrich the STEM learning environment to accommodate all students and give them the tools they need to succeed. Not all students learn the same way, and some may have a disability that requires innovative approaches to maintain engagement. According to the National Science Foundation, teachers and schools can level the STEM playing field by providing tools and methods that support a variety of learning styles:

  • Assistive technology and supporting software
  • Physical access to labs and equipment for students
  • Visual options for material presented orally
  • Alternative formats for printed text such as text-to-speech
  • Learning support tools and study aids for students with learning and cognitive difficulties
  • Materials that follow Universal Design for Learning principles
  • Opportunities for all students to participate in mentoring and peer support communities, job shadows, informational interviews, internships, leadership events, and other best practices that support STEM education and career transitions

Developing Inclusive Solutions for Learners

Benetech is taking a multi-pronged approach to making STEM education more accessible and inclusive for people who learn and read differently. One significant solution is Bookshare, the world’s largest library of accessible ebooks that offers thousands of STEM-related resources for people with disabilities. Other tools that help students with a disability or learning difference unlock STEM education include Mathshare, Imageshare, and 3D Printing.

While such tools clearly benefit students with disabilities, they help all learners by providing alternative modes of learning. Whether it’s a computer science textbook in audio or braille, a 3D printed double helix or a rich audible description of a complex table, inclusively designed education technology has the potential to unlock learning for all types of students.

We must excite. We must keep students engaged. And we must offer students ways to learn that work for them.

Learn more about how Benetech is building an inclusive STEM education future.