Language matters. This is especially true in the world of STEM education. The words we use to talk about the concepts, policies and content that underlie the education of a rising generation of global students truly have great import.
When we talk about giving students an ‘equal’ education, or an ‘equitable’ education, what are we really saying? How do these concepts differ from simply providing ‘an education’, and why must STEM education specifically pay attention to issues of equality and equity?
The answer is as simple as it is complicated. Excellent STEM education should be geared towards reaching all students across the globe, no matter their race, gender or country of origin.
To truly equip the next generation with the tools and skills needed to create innovative, durable solutions to the challenges of our modern world, we must build in systems and practices that ensure all students have access to quality education.
We must also, however, take a look at whether some students are starting just steps from the finish line while others haven’t even gotten to the racetrack.
Equality and Equity 101
For starters, are ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ the same thing when it comes to STEM education? Not quite.
A piece on the blog Think Inclusive provides an example that helps illustrate the difference between equality and equity in the classroom: “Students may see other students receiving supports, accommodations or modifications and feel wronged, not realising that the goal is for all students to work in their zone of proximal development.”
This example will be all too familiar to educators who deal with managing a classroom where differentiated instruction is the norm.
Sometimes shortened to ZPD, Vygotsky’s pedagogical concept of ‘zone of proximal development’ is a zone in which students can work with some guidance to move their skills beyond what they can do independently.
It is widely used as a framework for educators to support students with educational activities that help them move at a pace that is rigorous but accessible.
If two students have very different needs, then it certainly wouldn’t be equitable to provide them with equal assignments.
Rather, the educator has the responsibility to provide appropriate instructional supports so that students of all ability levels have equitable access to the learning objectives.
Another example, this one outside the realm of education, can also illustrate how approaches to true equity don’t necessarily mean that people receive the same services but, rather, appropriate services for their needs.
As noted in the 2017 European Commission report on gender equality, “in conflict-affected countries, displacement, economic insecurity and marred social networks lead to more unstable environments, increasing the risk of sexual violence. In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the EU has since 2004 supported the work of the Panzi Hospital in meeting the full spectrum of needs of survivors of sexual violence, and women with severe obstetric injuries.”
In this example, the response to the issue of gender-based violence is not to provide the same supports to men and women in an effort to provide equality to both genders, but rather to look at the distinct issues affecting women and provide supports that respond to those gender-specific concerns.
Moving beyond equality to true educational justice
So, how do educators, administrators and those tasked with instructional design help move students beyond a place of mere equality to true educational justice?
As a recent article by author Joseph Levitan in the American Journal of Educationexplains, “in contrast to equality and equity, a just education is focused on ensuring that each student has the opportunities to find, figure out, and develop their skills and abilities based on their values and their communities’ values … It is about seeing students as agents in their own education who have rights and inherent abilities.”
This means that crafting STEM programmes and policies should take the whole person into account, and that includes any barriers that students experience as a result of their race, gender, ethnicity, ability, socioeconomic status and so on.
A 2016 report that examined the role of libraries in supporting STEM equity includes a literature review that summarises the barriers as well as possible recommendations for students from a range of protected classes.
For example, one citation notes a long list of supports that could help students from racial minority groups have more just access to STEM programming, which includes “summer bridge [programmes], mentoring, research and experience, tutoring, career counselling and awareness, learning centres, workshops and seminars, academic advising, financial support, and curriculum and instructional reform.”
Notice a trend? To provide equitable STEM education, many of these recommendations suggest enrichments that happen beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.
It’s clear that offering true equity in STEM education means that we must think outside of the box, and think about what true access really looks like for the students we serve.
If we rise to the task at hand, not only will we be doing the right and just thing for our planet’s youth, but we’ll also be looking out for our best economic interests in the long run.
The European Institute for Gender Equality has found a number of benefits to closing the gender gap in the STEM field.
A recent summary of findings notes that “in monetary terms, closing the STEM gap leads to an improvement in GDP by €610bn to €820bn in 2050 … total EU employment would rise by 850,000 to 1.2m by 2050 … The new jobs are likely to be highly productive because women graduating from STEM often progress into high value-added positions in sectors such as information and communication or financial and business services.”
These are exciting times for progress, innovation and growth, and the actions we take today will have a major impact on our shared future. To succeed, we must bring all students along in our mission to create meaningful, dynamic STEM education — not just those who are already poised at the finish line, ready to take another lap.
This article was originally featured in Silicon Republic on April 2nd, 2018.