How I Approach Equity When Teaching STEM

There are a number of useful frameworks for thinking about equity in the classroom, but…

Elissa Levy
Jan 18 · 6 min read
National Cancer Institute (Unsplash)

My (virtual) school is closed for MLK Day, and I’ve been taking the time to reflect on equity in my classroom. In particular, I’m thinking about a frequent question I get from educators when I attend or facilitate a workshop: ​

​“Is there a list or toolkit to help me teach for equity in STEM?”

My first response is, “It’s not that simple.​ I do love checklists; I love to be able to say I did something ‘right.’ But equity work is a non-monotonic journey, and there is no single roadmap.

​That said, it still helps to know where to begin. There are a number of useful frameworks for thinking about equity in the classroom, such as Hammond’s Distinctions of Equity, Gorski’s Stages of Multicultural Reform, and Muhammad’s Historically Responsive Literacy. And there are some helpful approaches to science pedagogy, such as NGSS and Modeling Instruction. There are also fantastic lessons and units out there that incorporate equity in STEM: lessons on climate change and Covid-19, and conversations such as STEP UP and The Underrepresentation Curriculum. But in the years I’ve been reading about, collaborating on, and facilitating equity work I haven’t seen a comprehensive approach that puts equity at the forefront of every single lesson in a science or math classroom. So I made one.

Framework for equity in math and science classes
Framework for equity in math and science classes

This framework builds on a workshop I co-developed and co-facilitated last summer, on the dimensions of responsiveness in STEM (the “dimensions” being personal biases, students’ biases, pedagogical biases, content biases, and tech biases). Our discussions were rich, and there were many tools to bring back to our classrooms. But I still had a nagging sense that there was more to do to make equity pervasive in our classes. Hopefully, this framework moves us toward that vision.

The framework has four categories, and each category has a “thinking” component (systems to interrogate) and a “doing” component (classroom actions to take). Below I describe each section and provide practical resources associated with each.

1. The math and science “canon.” When I took physics in high school, it didn’t matter to me that Newton’s Laws were named after Newton. Gravity works the same way no matter who developed the math behind it, right? That may be true, but I’ve come to believe that we cannot disentangle science content from science history. How did classical mechanics become the gatekeeper coursework for physical science? Mechanics provided the foundation for Mercantalism in 1600’s Europe. If we designed a physical science curriculum for the needs of today’s world, it might focus on digital technology, big data, and climate change instead. We can analyze anything in the universe using the scientific method, but the curriculum of high school classes is shaped by history. There are books that interrogate this history (such as Blackfoot Physics or The Crest of the Peacock), and I’m working on ways to integrate this conversation in everyday classes. Stay tuned for a future blog post. [Update: the post has been published! Here it is.]

2. Structures of privilege. We need to talk about inequity as part of our STEM classes. According to this Physical Review article, more women were inspired to persist in physics after having direct conversations about inequity in the field. As a female physicist, I can relate: I only started to believe that I might be good enough for physics after I learned about structural factors in the field that affect women’s and men’s experiences differently. (I am looking for similar research for discussing racial inequity in STEM — please share if you have any.) Authority figures in STEM these days are mostly white men, and it (often unconsciously) affects students’ beliefs about whether they can “make it” in a scientific community. We teachers need to understand the implicit hierarchies in our instructional domains, to then facilitate classroom discussions that help our students process it. Both STEP UP and The Underrepresentation Curriculum have awesome curricular materials for doing this.

3. Personal bias and identities. When I was in third grade in my suburban New Jersey school, my science teacher asked me to draw a scientist. I drew an old man sporting frizzy white hair, wearing goggles and a lab coat, and holding test tubes of colorful liquid. Needless to say, the person I drew looked nothing like me. Now, I do the Draw-A-Scientist Test with my high school students, to open a conversation about who we see as the epitome of STEM, or the gatekeepers of the scientific community. My students ARE scientists: they explore the world, making and testing predictions, building things and building understanding. But they don’t draw themselves. How often have we heard, “I’m just not a math person.” Everyone is a math person until they decide they aren’t. And if they’ve decided they’re not a math person before they get to my class, then it’s my job to change them back. As teachers, we need to celebrate every in-class moment when our students overcome an intellectual challenge and make a new discovery. STEP UP has some great resources on building STEM identities — I definitely recommend it.

4. STEM teaching methods. I’ve seen a lot of great science pedagogy, including phenomena-driven NGSS, the AMTA’s Modeling Instruction materials, and Project-Based Learning. I use these tools daily. But as dynamic as these approaches are, all pedagogical structures contain implicit assumptions about how children learn — and thus no single approach will respond to every student’s cultural background and incoming values and ways of being. We learned the tools in our teacher prep programs: Sometimes students need a foothold into content with a see-think-wonder chart. Sometimes students need to read an authoritative text to be convinced that content is worth knowing or believing. Sometimes students need to create a diagram or use a graphic organizer to structure their thinking. It varies based on WHAT and WHO you’re teaching. In a future blog post, I will share some additional tools that I developed with a collaborator (Tegan Morton) to explore evidence and authority in the science classroom, to make sure that you really celebrate your students’ ways of learning STEM, rather than your own. [Update: the double-click into this component has been published here!]

The other piece of this pedagogy category is what students use STEM for. I thank Moses Rifkin from the URC for pointing out that an equitable STEM class must encourage students to actually use STEM to make the world a better place. For any content you’re teaching, how do students build a better world through the STEM topic at hand? This could take on many forms, but needs to be there.

Well, that’s what I have for now. I hope this framework is helpful. It’s how I think about everything I do. If you have suggestions or critiques, please share in the comments. If something like this already exists, please tell me. I aim to add to the discourse rather than making unhelpful noise. I want to work together. To quote an equity leader whom I greatly admire, “I want to engage in principled struggle with you.” This work is everything.

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Elissa Levy

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I teach physics and computer science in East Harlem, New York. I aim to engage.

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.