Making STEM Education Accessible

— Stephanie Miceli, WE 

Science literacy is just as important as learning to read and write. After all, science is the basis for understanding our bodies, our interconnected relationship with the natural world, and beyond.
Simply put, science is all around us. But 40 percent of schools don’t offer fundamental science courses like physics, and that can be categorized as an educational deficiency.

For schools in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) deserts the problem is magnified. No science labs, trained teachers or advanced courses — all a benchmark for college preparedness, and in the long run, for career preparedness in an increasingly competitive field. 

Distributing Digital Assets

Interestingly, there are some parallels to my experience visiting a school in rural Ghana during a WE Global Pro Bono Program placement earlier this year. I watched Mr. Adzola Kwame, an ICT (Information and Communications Technology) teacher, illustrate the letters of a keyboard on the blackboard, while his students retraced his movements on their place-mats. It’s easier this way, he said. Having 30 students line up to practice typing on his laptop for a couple of minutes each would be fruitless.

In the spirit of doing more with less, however, Mr. Kwame used that lone classroom laptop in other ways. The rise of immersive, digital learning has created more opportunities for students and teachers to expand their minds and their skills. Free, online courses have made it possible for Mr. Kwame’s students to access the same high-quality science courses as their peers in America’s top-performing schools. In fact, two of our clients at WE recently collaborated to do just that: bring free, online biology courses to anyone with an Internet connection -- from Thousand Oaks, California to Tema, Ghana.

They’re among the many companies representing the STEM spectrum rallying to prepare young people (of all backgrounds) for jobs that have yet to exist.

Science as a Community Celebration

At a recent San Francisco Business Times summit on this topic, panelists emphasized that innovative STEM education is inclusive STEM education. The purpose of these programs shouldn’t be to solely produce STEM PhDs, as the tired “pipeline” metaphor implies. It should be to spark new ways of thinking to address the most pressing issues of our time.

And as we shape our clients’ stories on STEM education or counsel them on their programmatic growth, it’s imperative to put inclusivity at the center.

Key recommendations from San Francisco Business Times summit panelists:

  • Reframe the conversation from “how do I make my community care about STEM?” to “what does my community do on the weekend?” Meet people where they are by making science a cultural celebration. That was the genesis of the Bay Area Science Festival.
  • Parents and community members are your greatest assets. They know what experiences they didn’t
  • Before creating a new program, see if you can tap into existing resources and voices. Chances are there’s an organization in your backyard that needs local schools to approach STEM differently.

Aside from this fundamental question of inclusivity, in our “love you today, shame you tomorrow” world, it’s also important to consider the public perception of science. Do the latest biotech and biopharma market news propel the image of a self-serving, cut-throat field? Whereas Science is viewed as noble and selfless. But these worlds are intertwined; you can’t have pharma without science. Not only because tomorrow’s innovations depend on it, but because science is a model of problem solving and even, an avenue for activism (STEMinism, anyone?! More, please)!

Enhancing inclusivity and addressing this reputation gap in STEM education has never been more urgent. As such, a child’s entry to the scientific world has to go beyond handing them safety goggles. It has to be about creatively engaging them where they are, whether it’s a makeshift instructional lab in Ghana or a science festival in the streets of San Francisco.

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