It’s been 52 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and 50 long years since the march on Selma. But today, a half-century later, a quarter of African American and Latino Americans still live in poverty, with the economic—and educational—reality even dimmer for young black and Latino men.
The stats are discouraging: Young African American men are not only less likely to graduate from college, but are incarcerated 2.5 times more often than the typical rate for all Latino citizens and nearly 6 times more than at the typical rate for all black Americans. In the K-12 arena, the national graduation rate for black males in 2013 was 59 percent and 65 percent for Latinos. In contrast, the graduation rate was 80 percent for white males.
STEM’s potential with regard to the solution might surprise you: STEM can teach students the skills to succeed in the world, the workplace, and our growing information economy, giving them the knowledge that will open doors to well-paying jobs in all fifty states.
Breaking Down Barriers
The statistics tell one story, but what do our youth of color really face in the classroom that keeps them from success? According to a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation titled “Unequal Opportunities in Education”, issues like ongoing segregation, unequal school and academic resources, and place-specific variations in teaching quality continue to keep black and Latino students performing behind their white peers and feeling disconnected from and discouraged by their school experience. This separation makes the lure of the street and the status, support, and power of street life enticing for students in danger of falling through the cracks.
A strong STEM education can’t fix all of society’s ills, but it can transform any classroom, regardless of geography, demographics, or resources into an engaging real-world learning laboratory exciting enough to rival any outside influence—and that’s an incredible place to start. Here’s how:
STEM is for everyone and is all around us. Fancy equipment and high-tech gadgets are unnecessary for science to come alive and feel relevant for students. Connecting what students see in nature, in their homes and on television to simple, hands-on experiments sparks interest and doesn’t require a huge investment in materials.
STEM trains students to think scientifically. Asking questions and solving problems about everyday occurrences gets students involved in the scientific process on a real-life level and opens the door to further-reaching questions and discovery. STEM thinking is higher order thinking—something that’s important to every other school subject and to students’ future career paths as well.
STEM is empowering. When students learn that they have the tools within them to find answers and solve problems for themselves, they become empowered. For students from troubled backgrounds or underserved environments, that power is transformative.
The inquiry-based STEM classroom is incredibly effective at connecting “classroom learning” with real-life problem solving—something that’s ultimately empowering and engaging to underserved students. All students, especially students that lack opportunity, need teaching and learning environments that help them develop transferable skills and a growth mindset. This is the mindset that we can all learn and discover, evolve, and grow.
With its growth mindset and engaging practices, STEM education that gives students the tools to be real scientists and engineers in the classroom creates an environment that does indeed compete with the street—or at the very least, competes favorably against the traditional science classroom that’s failing these students today.