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Diversity and Equity

Creating Pathways for Equity in STEM Through Family Engagement

Highlighting the Experiences of Hispanic/Latine Youths

“La historia de uno mismo no es autorreferencial ni autónoma, sino dada a través de la comunidad y la relación con los otros.

(An individual’s personal story is neither self-referential nor autonomous but given through their community and relationship with others.)”

José Francisco Zárate Ortiz

As social creatures, we develop a sense of who we are by interacting with others. This self-perception can change as our social settings change. At home we might see ourselves as parents, at work we might play the role of a technical expert, and when listening to friends we might see ourselves as advisors. Quite often we juggle our various identities at the same time, each of which is in a dynamic, never-ending process of change and development. Challenges arise when our multiple ways of being conflict as a result of social pressures—for instance, when a doctor has religious misgivings about performing certain procedures or when someone with a male gender identity wants to enter a career historically perceived as feminine, such as early childhood education. In situations like these, identifying as a member of one community could make it hard to feel welcome in another. These “rules” of what kind of person belongs in a particular community are typically established by its existing members and communicated through their interactions with outsiders, often leading to a cycle where the same kinds of people are accepted by the community and the “rules” become more entrenched.

In STEM fields in the United States, this challenge of being seen as “one of the group” faces many individuals—particularly women and people of color—who have a hard time seeing STEM as a place where they belong. There are several reasons for this, including the way we highlight “heroes” of science and mathematics, typically praising the accomplishments of white men and suppressing the contributions of others. Simply ask a group of youths or adults to name a scientist or mathematician to reveal their unconscious perceptions of the ideal archetypes in these fields; many will likely name Einstein, Tesla, Newton, Pascal, and (occasionally) Marie Curie. Although some of these famous individuals faced challenges of their own, this list fails to reflect the important STEM contributions of Latin American, Black or Afro-Caribbean, Asian, and other ethnic groups. These false ideals of what a STEM person “looks like” (i.e., white and male) further extend into recreational settings, including the way the media portrays STEM professionals. Inequities observed in popular culture reflect deeper issues of prejudice and racism that have plagued specific STEM fields, keeping women and people of color from participating equitably despite national attention on these problems (National Science Board 2020). Some researchers and practitioners are considering new ways to highlight unequal distributions of power in STEM contexts by exploring how individuals come to see themselves as science and/or math people—ultimately aiming to use what they learn to redesign STEM programs to be more inclusive of individuals who do not identify as male or white.

Though the important role that parents play in children’s STEM learning is broadly appreciated, the unique ways parents of minoritized youths encourage the development of their children’s STEM identity is largely under-realized. Given the relationship between how we are socialized and the development of our identities, the value of parental contributions makes intuitive sense—most children interact with their parents more frequently and intimately than anyone else. Thus, children’s earliest sense of who they are is constructed through parental interactions, like when a parent expresses delight in seeing their child’s artwork and recognizes their artistic traits or places books prominently in their child’s bedroom, implicitly communicating family values around literacy. Because families necessarily share many identities with their children (e.g., ethnic, cultural, religious), they can authentically communicate to their children that someone “like them” could participate in STEM. In the safe space of the home, parents can provide children the ability to explore identities that they may not be able to elsewhere, such as a Hispanic/Latine physicist or a gender non-binary biologist. In other words, family members have the power to affirm and reinforce minoritized children’s sense that they can meaningfully participate in STEM by providing a space where their diverse identities can coexist and be recognized as legitimate. As we discuss in this article, parents can (and do) create these spaces and experiences regardless of their education, economic status, and immigration status.

To make this case, we draw from our research project, “Talking Science,” which explores Latine parents’ everyday science talk with their children to highlight how parents work to make STEM “normal” in their homes (i.e., establish STEM dispositions), as well as give and acquire STEM resources (i.e., capital) to support their children’s identification with STEM (see Figure 1). We make the case that understanding how parents do these things is essential to our efforts as practitioners to dismantle structures and systems that perpetuate racial and ethnic inequalities in STEM. We also offer some recommendations for how this information can be put to use.

Figure 1. Relationship between experiences and identity. Early experiences contribute to STEM identity, which in turn leads to more STEM experiences.
Figure 1

A Little Bit of the Past

“Talking Science” was born out of an exploration of the links between informal STEM learning experiences and STEM identity. Our interest in these topics was predicated upon findings that college students who identify as a STEM person have a 21.7 times higher odds of pursuing a career in STEM than students who do not see themselves that way (Dou et al. 2019). Drawing from awareness that STEM identity can be developed outside of school, Dou and his colleagues wanted to explore how much certain kinds of childhood experiences (i.e., those that took place between the ages of 5 and 9) may have contributed to college students’ self-perceptions within STEM (see Figure 1). To do this, they analyzed survey data from over 15,000 college students across the country—representing a variety of contexts and majors—asking them to select from a list the kinds of STEM experiences they had as children, including tinkering with electronics, mixing chemicals, participating in science camps or competitions, taking care of animals, and talking with friends or family about science. When they reviewed the responses, they noticed that none of the experiences they asked about related significantly to STEM identity except talking with friends or family about science.

According to this finding, individuals who thought of themselves as STEM people in college—regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, family support, prior interests, and even secondary math and science performance—were also likely to have recalled talking to friends and family about science when they were children. Although this relationship does not necessarily mean that talking about science at home causes increases in STEM identity, practical interventions that are aimed at identity-related outcomes have endorsed the possibility that promoting family talk around STEM topics could be an important contributor. For instance, the STEM Next Opportunity Fund encourages program developers and practitioners they work with to think about how to foster STEM-related conversations within families both at their institutions and in the home (Kekelis and Sammet 2019). Yet, more needed to be learned about what effective conversations sound like and whether specific conversational characteristics stand out as meaningful in children’s development, especially children who come from Hispanic/Latine households. This population faces unique barriers to participation in STEM in the United States due to inequitable access to quality education and systemic structures designed to exclusively promote the knowledge and values of the dominant culture (Flores 2008).

With this objective in mind and funding from the National Science Foundation, our five-year “Talking Science” project kicked off. The focus of “Talking Science” is neither school experiences nor informal learning environments, like science centers or makerspaces, but rather the learning setting children encounter the most: the home, where children learn many of their values, dispositions, and attitudes (Archer et al. 2015). Its aim is to explore the context, content, and structure of childhood conversations that contribute to young people’s STEM identity development—particularly those who identify as Hispanic/Latine. In 2019 we began our work to get to know the family STEM experiences of Hispanic/Latine college STEM students (Figure 2), as well as elementary school–age children. Here, we focus primarily on what we learned from talking with college STEM students, which has informed our interviews with young children, and make recommendations for how those formative experiences can be made available through programming.

Figure 2. Sample of data collection items. Survey items were forced-choice and interview questions were open-ended.
Figure 2

Some Important Context

Before we share our findings and recommendations, it is important to understand more about who our participants were in relation to the ideas we are exploring. Over 65% identified as female and Hispanic/Latine; 47% grew up in Spanish-speaking homes, and many described having recent family immigration histories (i.e., first, second, or third generation). Nearly all respondents were STEM majors, most of whom were successful STEM majors who had completed their first college year and were still pursuing a STEM degree; many Hispanic/Latine individuals who start college as STEM majors end up switching majors (Riegle-Crumb et al. 2019). Many (almost 70%) also came from homes supportive of science. Though here we categorize these individuals under a single banner, “Hispanic” or “Latine,” we are careful to keep in mind the cultural differences both across and within Hispanic/Latine communities. For example, since our research took place in South Florida where most of our participants grew up, it is important to note that the experiences of Cuban-Americans will generally differ from those of other groups given the sociopolitical and historical factors that have shaped Cuban communities in South Florida. It is in this acute awareness of the differences between our participants that we situate the significance of the shared experiences of most—if not all—who sat down to talk with us.

What Have We Learned So Far?

Data for our study come from surveys of over 500 students and follow-up interviews with 20 students. Figure 2 shows sample items and Figure 3 outlines the process of data collection and analysis.

Figure 3. Sequence of data collection and analysis. Surveys were used to identify interview participants.
Figure 3

Drawing from these data, we describe three relevant factors that stand out as ways that parents facilitate access to STEM for their children and support the development of their STEM identities:

  1. Parents transfer STEM capital.
  2. Parents convert general capital to acquire STEM capital.
  3. Parents establish STEM dispositions within the household.

By “capital” we mean the tangible and intangible resources that individuals, including parents, draw upon to interact with the world in desired ways. Capital includes various forms of knowledge, financial, and social resources (Bourdieu 1986). “STEM capital” refers to these resources as they relate to STEM, such as knowledge about STEM topics, access to spaces like science centers, and relationships with people who work in STEM (Archer et al. 2015).

1. Parents transfer STEM capital.

One of the most obvious ways parents support their children’s STEM engagement is by directly providing STEM-related resources. For many of our participants this came in the form of knowledge—one or both parents directly sharing information they knew about a STEM topic. This happened even when neither parent held a STEM degree or worked in STEM, suggesting that outside of traditional schooling or training parents picked up STEM knowledge relevant to family conversations. Many participants recalled parents enthusiastically expounding on their knowledge of specific topics when opportunities arose through everyday events like watching a science or science fiction television program, going to the beach, completing homework, or experiencing a thunderstorm. Participants recalled their parents not only sharing what they knew but also engaging with them by asking questions or encouraging them to find more information. While all our interviewees, regardless of gender identity, recalled having these kinds of conversations, their stories almost always attributed the role of STEM-knowledge expert to their fathers or paternal guardians, even in cases where parents had separated.

2. Parents convert general capital to acquire STEM capital.

Parents find ways to leverage the general forms of capital they possess (e.g., finances, friends, understandings of the education system) to gain access to and transfer STEM capital to their children. We heard many stories of how parents used money to support or encourage STEM interests by buying tangible materials, such as science activity kits and books, or purchasing admission to informal STEM learning institutions like museums. Participants also described many cases in which their parents contacted friends or relatives in STEM careers—some of whom lived outside the United States—to ask for guidance on science and math homework or STEM career pathways. For example, Allie, a second generation Mexican-American and aspiring dentist, remembered a time when her mother used personal connections to get her an internship at a dental office. Others vividly recalled their mothers’ persistence in fighting for them to have access to high-quality education by researching area schools or advocating for their access to advanced courses. Saffi, a student whose family had moved to South Florida from Puerto Rico, recounted that her mother did a lot of research and reflected on her older children’s academic experiences to identify the right schools for her. As evident in Allie and Saffi’s experiences, the role of converting existing capital (e.g., financial, social) into STEM-related resources also tended to fall along gender-based patterns, with most of this work being done by maternal caregivers.

3. Parents establish STEM dispositions within the household.

Through various means parents establish household “dispositions,” or ways of thinking, behaving, and sense-making (Archer et al. 2015). Family STEM dispositions are these norms in relation to STEM fields, such as tendencies to want to explore scientific questions or consideration of visiting a science museum as a fun way for the family to spend a Saturday. Many of our participants’ childhood stories suggested their parents communicated these dispositions implicitly by encouraging them to talk about what they learned in their STEM classes, expressing wonder at what they knew, and/or asking questions to encourage them to share more. Selena, a first-generation Cuban American, reflected how doing STEM activities with her mother and grandmother, like watching science movies, influenced her affinity toward STEM, commenting, “Since I saw that all people who I love were interested in it, it made me also be like, ‘Oh, this is normal, like, this is what's expected of me.’”

In some cases, parents were more direct. Mary remembered being encouraged by her parents when she became frustrated with her STEM studies to the point that she wondered whether she should quit her career pursuits. She specifically remembered her parents verbally affirming her strengths and reminding her of past success, telling her, “You’re already doing it and you’re doing well ...  Of course you can keep going. What is going to stop you?” Mary attributed that message, at least in part, to her parents’ own history, reflecting, “They like science so much and they liked medicine but they were never able to pursue it themselves.”

Capital and Immigration

Given that many of our participants also described themselves as first- or second-generation migrants, we must consider how this context contributed to the ways parents transfer or leverage their capital. As evidenced in the narratives of our participants, especially those with recent immigration histories, their families held forms of capital valued in their home countries, such as dominance of the Spanish language or STEM degrees, but many found that those were not valued the same way in the United States. Thus, some struggled to find jobs because of their inability to speak English fluently, encountered professional systems that refused to recognize their education credentials, or struggled to support their children’s studies even when they knew the material because their strategies differed from the way their children were being taught. Our participants recalled how these types of obstacles hindered their parents’ ability to transfer or convert capital. Yet, they also recalled finding other forms of support to participate in STEM from another parent, a caregiver, family friend, or teacher—a luxury not all young people have.

We must also account for the sociopolitical forces that can shape migrant families’ abilities to mobilize their resources. Building off our earlier example, the 50-year-plus history of US-Cuban affairs has contributed to a large and growing population of Cuban Americans such that recent migrants often find communities with shared values or family with resources they can leverage. The recent influx of families fleeing the economic and political turmoil facing Venezuelan nationals has generated similar support communities in Florida (Noe-Bustamante et al. 2019). This is not the case for all Hispanic/Latine families, nor does being a Cuban or Venezuelan national guarantee these forms of support.

The multiple recollections of our college-age Hispanic/Latine participants impress upon us that regardless of their parents’ facility with the English language, their STEM education history, or their professions, one or both parents found ways to further their children’s STEM interests and pursuits. They did so in the midst of challenging circumstances, and their college-age children attributed their place within STEM—at least in part—to the conversations and experiences they had with their parents during childhood. This insight gives us reason to believe that pathways exist that invite Hispanic/Latine youth to participate in STEM through family engagement. 

Practical Recommendations

The ways parents transfer and convert capital, as well as communicate family dispositions and values, play important roles in the development of their children’s STEM identity. In doing so parents

  • expose children to STEM and STEM role models;
  • affirm their children’s interests in STEM while reinforcing their own;
  • provide access to settings where children can develop their STEM knowledge, skills, and confidence;
  • positively recognize their children’s engagement; and
  • connect children with resources that increase their sense of agency within STEM—all of which are direct and indirect shapers of STEM identity.

When we think about engaging families to promote these efforts—particularly when working with families from minoritized groups—ideas often center on how to more equitably distribute certain prized forms of capital. However, that is only part of the problem and overlooks some ways that access to STEM can be expanded by understanding how families are using capital they have. With this in mind, we can begin to identify a few important recommendations for practitioners to consider, especially when developing programming aimed at supporting STEM identification for Hispanic/Latine children: (1) account for the different ways that maternal and paternal caregivers tend to engage with their children, (2) recognize and avoid a deficit capital mindset, and (3) extend programmatic goals to include influence on family dispositions.

1. Account for the different ways that maternal and paternal caregivers tend to engage with their children.

Although we did not directly ask participants whether their maternal caregivers interacted with them differently than their paternal caregivers, these gender-based differences stood out in their responses to our questions and sometimes extended to other family members, as well. Specifically, maternal caregivers were more likely to engage in capital conversion—using one form of capital to gain access to STEM capital, like buying a book or asking a friend who is a STEM professional to talk to their child about career pathways. Paternal caregivers were more likely to transfer STEM capital by answering questions using information they already knew about topics their children were curious about. Knowing this, programs aimed at increasing parental participation in children’s STEM engagement should consider creating opportunities that cater to these two different approaches. While avoiding stereotypes, family engagement programs should include activities that both invite caregivers to contribute their existing knowledge and connect them to resources they could turn to when seeking STEM-related experiences for their children (e.g., scholarships, homework help, additional programming). These activities need not address both approaches simultaneously, but may be part of a suite of activities.

2. Recognize and avoid a deficit capital mindset.

In general, when thinking about creating opportunities for underserved or marginalized groups, we tend to think of ways to reduce costs or other barriers that we believe limit their participation. If we stop here without reflecting on differences in community and institutional capital, we run the risk of growing frustrated when, in spite of accommodations, these communities do not engage with our programming. Even when these approaches are successful, they are not always sustainable; more importantly, they fail to take into account existing capital in these communities. Instead, we should make efforts to recognize and leverage forms of capital valued within those communities. A simple approach might include embracing satellite programming that takes place at local schools, libraries, or community centers that families are already familiar with and whose staff they trust. A more involved approach could include grassroots program development where developers work with community leaders to better understand the types of STEM topics and issues the families they serve engage with on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, developers can gain insight for designing activities that are not only relevant but also allow families to contribute (and build upon) the STEM knowledge they have gained through their own lived experiences. This insight can also be applied to exhibit development, such that exhibit themes can reflect the topics, issues, perspectives, and languages relevant to and inclusive of families in those communities.

3. Extend programmatic goals to include influence on family dispositions.

If a child is interested in STEM but is only able to explore that interest in institutional settings, engagement may wane, especially if experiencing STEM in informal learning spaces is a rare treat (e.g., on a school trip or through exceptional admission fee waivers). When thinking about how to sustain children’s interest and engagement in STEM—which are critical for developing a positive STEM identity—it is essential to include the family context. The development of interest in STEM, particularly for young children, is not an individualistic process but rather a family affair (Pattison and Dierking 2019). Outreach aimed at promoting STEM identity in underserved youths should not limit itself to inspiring STEM engagement with children alone. Parents should also be involved, and programs should aim to not only motivate (and evaluate) children’s STEM interest and identity but also their parents’. This may require accounting for the demands placed on parents and how those demands may make involvement difficult if involvement is only possible in the traditional sense (e.g., during work hours). For instance, families can be presented with activities to do at home that leverage topics that resonate with family values while extending what their children learn through programming.

Conclusion 

Every day we see the joy that individuals of all ages and backgrounds experience when they are able to explore the natural world in ways that inspire wonder. We see it as our responsibility to make sure these types of experiences are available to everyone in our community, and perhaps especially accessible to those who do not often see themselves represented in STEM. Though it can be difficult to figure out how to do this, the findings from our research—which we are beginning to see reaffirmed through our interviews with elementary-age children—show that STEM identity is supported in cases where parents are willing and able to transfer or convert their resources to support their children’s STEM-related experiences. This should urge us as practitioners to critically examine how we design and evaluate our programs by accounting for family capital and dispositions. While we may assess program outcomes and find positive changes in children’s attitudes toward STEM and skills or interest in STEM topics, long-term sustainment must involve engaging and exciting parents in ways that embrace their values and the goals they envision for their children. These efforts, which entail more than quick-fix solutions, such as lowered admission cost, require out-of-the-box, collaborative thinking that involves community members and organizations.

Acknowledgments

This work would not have been possible without the substantial contributions in data collection and analysis by our undergraduate research assistants Sheila Castro, Elizabeth Palma-Dsouza, and Alexandra Martinez. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation CAREER Award AISL- 1846167. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in these materials are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

 

Remy Dou (douremy@gmail.com) is an Assistant Professor at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Heidi Cian is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Florida International University in Miami, Florida.

AUTHOR NOTE

Here the term "Latine" (la-ti-ne) is used as a gender-neutral reference to individuals who identify primarily with Spanish-speaking cultures of Latin America, including the Caribbean. We recognize that in practice this may include individuals who identify only as "Hispanic" or those who speak Brazilian Portuguese. While no term is perfect, unlike the terms "Latinx" and "Latin@", the origins of the term "Latine" are rooted in Latin American social movements and its use is more congruent with a Spanish-language pronunciation.

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Equity Inclusion Research STEM Informal Education

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