Is This the Best Way to Increase Diversity in STEM?

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No quick fix

Apparently, introducing diversity into the world of STEM is difficult. While the numbers of minorities and women are growing, the workforce in STEM-related fields remains predominantly white, 89 percent, and male, 72 percent. Overall, the U.S. workforce is 78 percent white and 53 percent male.

Over the last 25 years, these rates of participation in the STEM workforce represent a 67 percent increase for blacks and Hispanics, from 6.6 to 11 percent, and 24 percent increase for women, from 22.9 to 28.4 percent.

So change is taking place, it’s just doing so at a snail’s pace. Under current conditions, proportional representation of all groups in the STEM workforce would take another 60-75 years to lock in. These trend lines provide the backdrop for the “nobody’s figured it out” diagnosis that many people apply to the problem of under-representation in STEM fields.

New approach?

By coincidence, though, something else got started 25 years ago that might turn out to help bend the curve on under-representation in STEM fields towards faster remediation. Researchers started defining a theory of “culturally relevant education,” an approach that explicitly valorizes and leverages the distinctive, different backgrounds that non-white, non-male students bring to the classroom.

In recent years, the idea of applying culturally relevant education practices to STEM education has gained visibility and proponents. For example, both the National Science Foundation and National Science Teachers Association have gathered materials on the topic for educators’ consideration and use. And this enthusiastic overview from the field of biology suggests how the word is going forth more informally.

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What it’s all about

To simplify a complex concept with many contested dimensions, culturally relevant education foregrounds three general goals:

  1. Academic success: Students develop subject matter knowledge in topics of study that translates into demonstrable, assessable learning.

  2. Cultural competence: Students acquire a contextualized understanding of STEM fields, with a grasp of their importance and relevance to human well-being from local to global levels.

  3. Sociopolitical consciousness: Students appreciate the importance of applying their learning to solving problems for the benefit of individuals and social groups, within social, economic, and technological realms.

How it can work

If the goals, while general, remain mostly consistent across implementations of culturally relevant programming, the methods can vary. Different program goals and capabilities define different emphases for educators within a broadly constructed, culturally responsive education approach.

Typical approaches include methods like:

  • Getting to know students and their home culture, language, values, and environment.

  • Integrating students’ ways of knowing and communicating with STEM content.

  • Highlighting individuals from students’ racial or ethnic groups as high achievers in STEM areas.

  • Engaging students as partners with teachers in a constructivist approach to learning.

  • Naming and critiquing the assumptions about who and what “counts” as normal and meaningful in STEM disciplines.

A long-time interest of ours

At Start Engineering, we have worked from the start to include in our publications images and themes that represent and advance diversity in engineering and technology fields.

Diversity matters for both practical and principled reasons. For problems both large and small, the greater and more diverse the number of possible solutions, the better the final result will be. This is truth universally acknowledged in design-based practices like engineering.

And commitments to equity and justice shape efforts on many fronts to make opportunities in STEM – some of the most lucrative and meaningful in our schools and workplaces – available to students of all backgrounds and abilities.

Many hands at work

Our commitments along these lines have underwritten some rich connections we have formed with organizations working on STEM education from similar, “culturally relevant” starting points.

  • FAME: Started in the 1970’s as the Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering, FAME was one of the first non-profits to start serving minorities and girls in what was not-yet called STEM education. A Delaware-based program, FAME features an engaging K-6 curriculum called STEMulate Change organized around numerous icons in STEM fields from under-represented groups. Icons’ biographies highlight their struggles as well as the impact they have had on their fields, giving students someone who looks like them as an example to inspire their own STEM pursuits. Through afterschool and in-school programs, FAME has served over 17,000 students.

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  • Great Minds in STEM: Great Minds, or GMiS, is a national organization that works to promote Hispanic students’ interest and achievement in STEM fields. Viva Technology is one vehicle for Great Minds’ efforts to ground STEM opportunities in Hispanic students’ cultural home territory. Featuring points of contact for students, parents, and teachers, Viva Technology includes role models describing their journeys into STEM fields, community-based student activities, and substantive learning opportunities connected to real-world problems. Active since 2001, Viva Technology has reached 135,000 students and teachers in 18 states.

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  • LA’s BEST: This comprehensive afterschool program works first to create a stable, safe environment for mostly low-income, minority students in Los Angeles. From this starting point, kids are nurtured towards identifying and exploring innate interests, in their own ways, that connect to more formal learning activities. The “Celebrate Science” program, for example, invites kids to analyze their own community or neighborhood as a model for creating a sustainable community on Mars. Coding, robotics, and digital media programs present similar opportunities. Over 5,000 elementary-level kids go through the program every year.

Beyond hands-on learning

These three programs show just a sliver of the spectrum of possible approaches that culturally relevant education activities can take. In all cases, they extend familiar hands-on, student-centered models to include valorization of the particular students’ cultural, linguistic, and epistemic orientations. Intrinsic to program design is visible, material recognition of students’ diverse backgrounds as assets to learning, not obstacles to be overcome. Besides bolstering students’ self-efficacy and feelings of worth, a bounty of research says these approaches also boost learning outcomes.

And, finally

As pedagogies go, culturally relevant education is relatively new, at just 25 years old. Have you had any experiences with this kind of approach? Is the term new to you? Does it seem like a useful tool for addressing diversity issues in STEM? Let us know your thoughts. And please share with any interested colleagues or friends.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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