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Equity in STEM Education: It’s All About Culture!

By Alicia Santiago

Alicia SantiagoWhen you think about diversity, how does it show itself ? When you stand before your students, do the faces looking back at you look like your own? Most likely, your answer is “no.” Classrooms and afterschool programs are becoming more culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse, which is leading to both challenges and opportunities for educators.

Often students and educators do not have the same cultural, ethnic, or social background. Why does it matter, and how can you bridge this disconnect? The cultural divide between educators and students can seriously impede teaching and learning. Educators use their own cultural and experiential filters to communicate instructional messages to students; in many instances, those filters are incompatible with the students’ cultural filters. Have you considered how your culture influences your students?

Culture plays a huge role in education and in everything we do. Culture shapes our values, beliefs, social interactions, worldview, and what we consider important. It also influences how we see ourselves, how we see our students, how we relate to them, what we teach, and how we teach. It is important to recognize that culture is central to teaching and learning, as it plays a key role in communicating and receiving information, and is vital in sparking interest and effectively engaging students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

A way for educators to span the cultural divide between them and their students is to build bridges using culturally responsive practices and creating inclusive learning environments. Educators who approach science teaching and learning with a culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) are effective in bridging that cultural divide. Culturally responsive educators challenge the stereotypical deficit thinking of diverse students (e.g. “culturally deficient,” “at risk,” “low-performing”) by considering cultural differences as assets, valuing students’ strengths and skills and acknowledging each student’s potential.

So how do we engage diverse students in culturally responsive and appropriate ways? Cultural responsiveness is about developing genuine and trusting relationships with students and validating their strengths and interests. A first step to develop these relationships is getting to know your students as individuals and learning about their culture. Find out their interests and the way they operate at home and in their community. This also will help you better understand how to connect STEM to their lives and make learning experiences relevant for them.

To learn about students’ culture, we first must understand our own culture and how it affects the way we relate to students. Educators often believe that they can be neutral and objective, but their life experiences and cultures (e.g., values, assumptions, and beliefs) impact how they relate to students. Sometimes these assumptions and beliefs manifest as implicit biases, which could negatively affect students. We all have implicit biases: attitudes or stereotypes that influence our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious way. We need to examine our sociocultural identities and become aware of and challenge our unconscious biases to better understand ourselves and effectively communicate and work with students.

Another key aspect of CRP is creating an inviting, inclusive learning environment. In such an environment, students believe their contributions and perspectives are valued and respected. They feel that they belong. This positively impacts students’ interest and motivation in STEM.

The need to belong is a basic human need that influences our behavior and motivations. When students feel that they belong in the learning environment, they feel connected to and accepted by their peers and teachers. They feel validated in a way that is accepting and positive, which increases their engagement and motivation. In an inclusive learning environment, educators use teaching strategies that accommodate students’ needs in terms of learning styles, abilities, backgrounds, and experiences.

Analyzing the type of environment you created for your students is a great way to begin transitioning to an inclusive learning environment. For example, do your students feel empowered and capable of discussing concerns or challenges with you or their peers? How do your teaching practices foster a learning community in which each student is valued and considered? What strategies do you use to support diverse learners?

Culture is a key element of every learning environment. It shapes both the learning environment and the experience of each student. Cultural responsiveness is a powerful approach that allows educators to improve STEM engagement and equity. Whichever strategies you use to make the learning environment more inclusive, remember to remain sensitive to and flexible about the ways diverse students think, behave, and communicate. This will help create a supportive learning environment in which students are motivated to learn, and allows them to grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

Alicia Santiago, PhD, is a neurobiologist and a cultural and diversity consultant with more than 10 years of experience in informal science education. She collaborates with Twin Cities PBS to develop and implement innovative direct and mass media science and health education national-level programs for the Latinx community. She can be reached by e-mail at

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