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4 keys to building an equitable STEM program

From professional development opportunities to connecting lessons to careers, here’s how schools and districts can promote STEM for all

By Joel Jacobson
co-founder, Defined Learning October 1st, 2018

This year in schools across the nation, approximately 136,000 students took advanced placement (AP) computer science, a 31 percent increase from last year. This group included a record number of female and minority students, but girls still only accounted for 28 percent of students taking AP computer science exams, while underrepresented minorities accounted for 21 percent. Meanwhile, the increase in STEM jobs shows no sign of slowing down, and only 33 percent of workers ages 25 and older have a degree in a STEM field.

What does this all mean? It means we can’t afford to leave anyone out. We need to find ways to immerse all students of all ages, races, genders, and types (not just the “talented and gifted” kids) in rich STEM learning. Educators need to do whatever they can to engage all students in a way that appeals to their interests across all STEM subjects. In working with hundreds of school districts across the country, here are four steps I’ve seen educators take to effectively build and nurture an equitable STEM program.

1. Provide STEM professional development (PD) to elementary teachers.
One of the challenges educators face is that there are limited opportunities for STEM-specific PD designed for elementary teachers. To promote STEM equity, schools first need to help more teachers figure out how to integrate STEM into their curriculum.

Providing this support can start at the school and district level. For example, schools can create the time and resources to allow STEM teachers to empower students in their education with support structures such as integration across disciplines and building coherence in STEM-related goals.

Elementary teachers, who may have more cross-curricular experience with STEM, can provide support to educators who teach middle or high-school students with a more distinct focus on content areas such as science or mathematics.

2. Expose students to STEM at an early age.
Often, by the time students hit middle school, they have already decided whether they are “good” at science and math. To avoid losing these kids, we need to make sure we are exposing students to STEM lessons and career opportunities in elementary school. Facilitating students’ exposure to STEM careers not only deepens their understanding of the subject matter, but also helps increase their interest in pursuing a STEM career after graduation.

3. Embrace project-based learning (PBL).
After spending time in a wide variety of classrooms around the country, I’ve found that the best way for students to really grab onto STEM topics and uncover their interests is through authentic project-based learning. Research shows that students taught through PBL perform better than those taught through traditional methods. Districts can improve STEM equity by providing their teachers with the curriculum, materials, and support they need to get their students immersed in hands-on lessons.

While some districts make funding for STEM resources available, others may not have that luxury. For educators who need a little extra help to make STEM learning possible, take a look at these 10 resources for STEM funding.

PBL promotes transferable 21st-century skills, such as the 4C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) that students will use in their futures to solve tough problems and overcome daily challenges that present themselves in careers.

4. Connect lessons to life outside the classroom.
Through PBL, educators can engage students in projects and performance tasks tied to careers and experiences that they can see themselves pursuing after graduation. Solutions that merge PBL and STEM can bring these curricula to life for K–12 teachers and truly nurture those career-focused learning opportunities.

The future will present job opportunities where the ability to adapt will be at a premium. Through the combination of STEM and PBL, schools challenge students to build the skills they need to succeed in those future jobs. I fervently believe that STEM education for all students (starting in elementary school) is vital to building and maintaining our nation’s shared prosperity.

About the Author:

Joel Jacobson is the co-founder of Defined Learning. He can be reached at

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