The lack of gender and racial diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math fields is no secret. Black and Latinx adults combined make up 30 percent of the US population but only 11 percent of the STEM workforce. Women constitute 25 percent of the STEM workforce and women of color only 3 percent. To compound these statistics, research shows that by age six, both boys and girls start to think of intelligence as a male trait. The reason for these harrowing statistics is not because women and people of color are incapable, but rather because of the discrimination, disadvantages, and challenges they face in getting to STEM fields.
Too often the conversation around STEM focuses on middle and high school students, particularly those who belong to groups underrepresented in these professional fields. But a recent report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America makes the case for starting STEM early. The report explores the importance of engaging students in STEM activities from pre-K—not by drilling kids on science or math lessons, but instead by engaging them in hands-on learning and providing moments for guided exploration of the natural world. The report emphasizes the need for research reprioritization; improvement of pre- and in-service educator training; and substantive resources to better engage parents.
It frames these recommendations as early childhood equity efforts, but they should also be considered workforce equity efforts. Providing every student with an opportunity to engage in STEM early on could address the lack of workforce diversity and help rewrite the ideology that says intelligence is only a male trait.
One major theme throughout the report is the degree to which students are impacted developmentally by their unique school and home environments, the policies that affect them, and the cultural values that scaffold them. Many of the experts who informed this work indicated a need for practices that consider all of these factors in concert, with an emphasis on meeting students and families where they are.
For example, the report shows that many parents are willing to engage with STEM early, but rely on limited resources to do so. Particularly, parents in low-income families — a group that encompasses other underrepresented groups in STEM fields — may rely heavily on mobile technology to support their children’s learning. As the report suggests, educators and researchers should reach out to parents to communicate what STEM activities actually look like at such a young age, why they’re important, and what resources are available to support learning outside the classroom using mobile devices.
This type of push to meet the unique needs of all students is usually framed as equity work, but rarely as a way to increase workforce diversity. This is a mistake. The lack of diversity that characterizes STEM fields is symptomatic of larger issues in access and opportunity in the early years. Creating equitable opportunities for all students early on could be a powerful tool in addressing the lack of diversity in the workforce.
The disconnect between equity and diversity exists, in part, because the two are often confused in conversations about education reform, even though they are two distinct goals. The use of the term equity in in STEM, such as in the STEM Starts Early report, typically focuses on ensuring equal opportunity and outcomes for all students, correcting for the disadvantages that some may face. The term diversity, on the other hand, typically signals representation or inclusion efforts, often through K-12 programs to specifically launch underserved girls and students of color into STEM.
When executed well, these types of programs can be an effective and necessary way of increasing representation. But diversity doesn’t develop inevitably into equity. Launching women and students of color into STEM fields does nothing to address why it’s so difficult for them to get there in the first place. If we don’t also address the reasons for the lack of diversity, along with the discrimination, biases, and historical disadvantages that sustain, it we’re only fighting half the battle.
Girls and students of color start facing this discrimination and bias very early on. To address these barriers, it only makes sense to start STEM early and to meet the needs of all families where they are. Just as important as starting early is doing so with intentionality and leveraging this engagement as a tool for affecting workforce equity. How can we prepare educators to recognize implicit biases that arise in engaging boys and girls, black and white students differently? What could addressing these biases do for gender and racial ideology, and how could that shifted ideology ultimately make it easier for students to enter STEM fields? Answering these questions will take a robust reimagining of STEM in the early years and the policies surrounding it, as well as an intentional reframing of early childhood education efforts as a means of addressing workplace inequity.