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In Maggie Waldner’s elementary school classroom in downtown Denver, math lessons rarely focus on rote memorization. She talks about problem solving and real-world issues, like homelessness. And she makes sure her racially diverse class of boys and girls learns about mathematicians and scientists who look like them. Especially the girls.

This is what culturally responsive instruction looks like in STEM education.

For a while now, schools across the country have used culturally responsive teaching practices in English and history classrooms, engaging learners in the material by incorporating their own experiences and cultures. In science and math, though, it’s a fairly new idea.

But experts say finding better ways to teach STEM to students of color and girls is urgent. While women make up half of the college-educated workforce in the U.S., they hold less than one third of the jobs in science and engineering. Black and Latina women make up just 3 percent of that workforce.

A new report by 100Kin10, an organization focused on ending the STEM teacher shortage, places part of the blame for this shortage on the lack of high-quality STEM courses in high schools, which in turn results in fewer students developing an interest in STEM subjects and discouraging them from pursuing STEM teaching careers. Too often the STEM classes that are offered are of poor quality and fail to recognize the experiences and contributions of women and people of color in these fields. High-quality STEM education, the report states, makes coursework “relevant to students’ lives and passions,” with a focus on applied learning, rather than holding tight to rote practices.

After a summer of protests over racial justice, coupled with a pandemic that has exacerbated educational inequality, calls on educators across the country to better teach ethnically diverse groups of students have become more urgent.

Waldner, who teaches at the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a public charter, is a member of 100Kin10’s Teacher Forum. She has long incorporated culturally responsive practices and strategies into her classroom. Her approach is twofold, she said. She provides students “windows and mirrors,” so they can see themselves and their community in the curriculum, and also shows them the lives and experiences of those who are different from them. By centering teaching around these practices, she said, teachers can ensure that what students learn isn’t irrelevant to what they experience outside of school.

So, how can a teacher bring that focus on personal relevance into STEM education?

First, because the rote teaching of mathematics may be particularly ineffective with African American students, doing little to prepare them for the STEM field, Waldner stays away from a mechanical approach. She encourages students to make educated guesses about how to solve a math problem, and asks them to try teaching each other using different strategies, a tactic that helps spark discussion on the variety of ways to reach a solution. She also uses what she calls a “conjecture wall,” where she writes down the guesses and questions students have about how to approach the problems in their own words, so they can notice the patterns in their work.

“It’s less about getting a right answer or solving it a certain way. It’s really about being able to talk about what you’re doing,” Waldner said. This “helps kids see themselves as problem solvers and also it gives them power,” she said.

Second, Waldner said it’s also important to provide hands-on learning that connects directly to children’s experiences in their communities. She does this by presenting math problems in the format of a story. But, before they try to solve the problem, students retell the story to each other, and answer a question to check their understanding of the problem it presents.

“When we are learning a STEM subject, or going further into a topic from a STEM point of view, we often talk about how we need to identify the problem, make some sort of solution, try out our solution, and then think again,” Waldner said. “What worked? What didn’t? What do we notice about how we solved a problem in comparison to others? What will we change next time?”

Sometimes, she’ll choose a societal issue to help her students understand larger problems. Every year, the students at the school learn about homelessness and then do a project to help homeless community members. When her students study the issue, they use the same approach they take with STEM problems and ask questions such as, “What is the problem? What could we do to help solve it? What are others doing to solve this problem? Did it work? What would we do differently next time?” she said.

“When we are working to understand homelessness in Denver from a mathematical perspective, such as how many people are experiencing homelessness and whether this number has changed over time,” Waldner said, “this leads to discussions of why and what we can do.”

Making STEM education more culturally responsive is also among the goals of the  Million Girls Moonshot, a new initiative launched by the STEM Next Opportunity Fund, with support from other tech funders including the Intel Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The organization hopes to engage one million more girls in STEM learning opportunities through afterschool and summer STEM programs over the next five years.

“We want the girls to feel empowered, so that they go through high school, taking the courses that they need to take to have a good shot at being successful in the sciences at the college level,” said Penny Noyce, the founding board chair of STEM Next Opportunity Fund. “We want to continue to sort of create this sisterhood that feels not lonely in pursuing excellence in math, computer, physics, science in general so that we can increase those numbers,” said Noyce, who grew up around technology as the daughter of Intel founder Robert Noyce.

When girls and students of color don’t see themselves represented in STEM education and thus don’t pursue STEM careers, said Gabriela González, deputy director of the Intel Foundation, we miss out on their unique talent and perspective in helping to solve real-world problems like the ones that our country is facing now.

“These are careers that can really help improve their quality of life, not just for themselves, but for their families and also, at the same time contribute to the larger community and lifting up of their communities through their contributions,” González said.

Waldner agrees. “If kids, and people, are able to understand societal problems in a mathematical or scientific (way) … they’re able to solve those problems,” she said.

This story about culturally responsive practices was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, she worked as an editor and reporter at The East Carolinian, an independent college newspaper in eastern North Carolina,...

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