Strategies for Educators to Support Students in STEM
Below are recommended ways for educators to support and encourage students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. The strategies are numbered and lettered for easy reference but do not suggest a prioritized list. Good teaching in general, including positive rapport with students, lays an important foundation for supporting all students in STEM.
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Wiest, L. R. (2014). Strategies for educators to support students in STEM. Reno, NV:
- Make sure students understand that effort and appropriate experiences, rather than natural ability, are mainly responsible for success in the STEM disciplines. Accordingly, praise effort and reasoning to a greater degree than correct answers.
- Help students develop appropriate dispositions in relation to STEM, such as positive self-perceptions. Similarly, strengthen your own belief that all students are capable in STEM and that STEM knowledge, skills, and careers are equally appropriate for and important to both sexes. Be sure this is evident in your group and individual interactions with students. Develop greater competence and confidence in, as well as enthusiasm for, your own STEM knowledge and skills.
- Hold high expectations for and encourage and support all students in STEM. Interact with girls as much as boys and in qualitatively similar ways. For example, call on girls as often as boys to answer questions and assist in demonstrations, ask them higher-level questions and expect them to demonstrate thinking and reasoning, and ensure they participate actively and meaningfully in small-group work. At the undergraduate and graduate levels, invite students to participate in relevant social activities and professional opportunities, such as assisting in research projects and doing joint publications and presentations. Give all students specific, constructive feedback on their work.
- Use varied, student-centered teaching methods within a "safe" classroom climate. In particular, use mixed-ability, collaborative (rather than competitive) group work, hands-on methods, and meaningful (such as real-world and interdisciplinary) contexts. Use mixed-gender groups, but avoid placing only one sex in a small group, even if that results in having one or more all-sex groups. Monitor and rotate these groups regularly. Avoid having girls and boys compete against each other. Incorporate modern technologies that support math learning, such as graphing calculators and iPads. Note that computer work can involve "social" learning, which might motivate some student to a greater degree. For example, students might be asked, at times, to do joint tasks that rotate who is at the keyboard or to do follow-up, collaborative classroom tasks that apply or build on concepts first explored on the computer. Despite some students preference for using manipulative materials, require them to go beyond manipulative use in mathematics. For example, have them analyze problem structures across problem situations. Likewise, help all students develop fluency-efficient retrieval and processing-with STEM facts and procedures. Include practice solving facts and problems mentally. Incorporate investigative tasks and projects that are more holistic in nature, and place responsibility for thinking and learning on the students themselves. Purposeful games might be included, and students should sometimes be asked to develop their own problems and projects. Help students see the practical value of STEM knowledge and skills they learn in school. In general, create a classroom environment that generates interest and curiosity, and which is nonthreatening but holds all students accountable for learning.
- Emphasize process, not just product. Encourage students to make reasoned conjectures about problems, to explore varied approaches to STEM tasks, and to explain and justify their work. For example, have students try to solve problems in more than one way, explain why they think their answers are reasonable in relation to the problem situation, and-where relevant-tell what potential significance findings of experiments and projects might have. In general, encourage good discussions in relation to STEM tasks. Be sure to include some STEM problems and tasks that are "ill-structured," in other words, that are somewhat ambiguous and require more creative thought and effort. Have students do computer work that involves some self-driven, unstructured exploration in addition to that which requires following prescribed procedures. ("Risk-taking" and innovativeness can be important attributes in STEM pursuits.) When students struggle, give appropriate learning support, but do not "bail them out." In other words, do not simply tell or show them what to do.
- Employ measures to ensure equal and fair student participation, such as rotating who answers, how often, and when (e.g., not always being among the first or last to answer questions). Provide sufficient wait-time (at least 3-5 seconds) after posing a question to allow everyone time to think before calling on a student, preferably not allowing any students to raise their hands until you request that they do so after allowing thinking time. Provide various ways to respond that extend beyond speaking in front of the class, such as discussing material with a partner or small group or explaining ideas in a journal. Structure tasks so that girls and boys physically use STEM equipment, such as science lab equipment, calculators, computers, and manipulative materials, an equal amount of time and in comparable ways. In general, ensure equal access to quality human, technological, and material resources.
- Provide ongoing training in two- and three-dimensional visual-spatial skills that involve mental, pictorial, tactile, and kinesthetic tasks. Sample activities include mentally rotating objects to determine what they would look like from another perspective, doing tangram tasks, building and dismantling objects, and physically demonstrating concepts (e.g., representing geometric shapes with one's body).
- Use gender-fair teaching materials. For example, use a fairly even balance of whole-class tasks that include stereotypical female contexts (e.g., shopping, cooking, art/literature), stereotypically male topics (e.g., sports, politics, economics), and "neutral" topics (e.g., animals, food, music). Be sure these materials-for example, print material, photos and illustrations, and films-are diverse not only in terms of gender but also in terms of race/ethnicity and other dimensions of human diversity. This approach helps challenge potential stereotypes about who can do STEM.
- Provide diverse historical and contemporary male and female role models (and their work) in STEM through stories, posters, films, guest speakers, class assignments, and so on.
- Use a variety of formal and informal assessment techniques so that students may demonstrate learning through conventional tests and assignments, as well as performance on projects, presentations, role plays and skits, video and website productions, community service, and other means that may at times involve a choice among designated options. Value both process and product in grading. Devote some attention to test-taking techniques for standard test types due to their pervasive and high-stakes use.
- Use online, face-to-face, and other outreach methods to actively recruit girls and boys into voluntary courses and STEM activities. Offer out-of-school-time (e.g., after-school, weekend, summer, or online) programs for students and/or in-school programs, such as computer clubs, that encourage students to participate in emotionally and psychologically "safe" STEM programs with peers.
- Provide information and resources on STEM careers and career preparation. Make it clear that STEM careers are both appropriate for and available to females and males, and encourage students to consider these careers. Use gender-inclusive language when discussing occupational roles, such as "When a mathematician...he or she...." Help students see how STEM-and thus their participation in STEM-can help make the world a better place for living things.
- Teach students how to help themselves in STEM. Perhaps offer a workshop to teach strategies and provide resources for students to strengthen their own STEM performance and participation. Stay abreast of good websites, local programs and events, contests, and other learning opportunities to promote.
Encourage students to
- take an active part in school STEM activities, such as handling equipment and tools in important ways and serving as group spokesperson as often as other students;
- share their thinking and work in class;
- try different approaches to tasks;
- seek to understand how and why things work the way they do;
- identify personal strengths and weaknesses and seek to improve weaker areas of knowledge and skill;
- improve knowledge and skills by joining voluntary in- and out-of-school programs and by accessing good print and electronic resources (e.g., high-quality websites), especially in such areas as geometry, measurement, spatial skills, earth science, physics, and chemistry;
- seek help from qualified others when needed (after a sincere individual effort) and work collaboratively with peers (e.g., form study groups);
- find role models and mentors, as well as like-minded and supportive peers, to communicate with in person or in safe online settings, or consult websites and books that profile such individuals;
- notice STEM in the surrounding world and seek to know more about it;
- educate themselves about STEM careers and career preparation, and;
- maintain a positive self-image in relation to STEM—for example, realize that they have much potential in STEM and can improve ability with effort, value STEM contributions to daily life and the world at large, and recognize themselves as legitimate mathematicians, scientists, technologists, and engineers capable of preparing for and entering these careers.
Similarly, teach students to assess their own actions during school work. Help them learn what is fair and respectful behavior and have them monitor their actions in structured ways, such as reviewing a checklist of equitable behaviors after completing a small-group activity and determining how well they think they did.
- Educate parents through such avenues as newsletters, parents' nights/workshops, and online information regarding the importance of STEM performance and participation for students. Be sure they, like students, understand that females' and males' STEM abilities, regardless of performance, are comparable and are highly subject to effort and experience. Suggest that they provide students with STEM materials (e.g., chemistry sets, calculators, computers, math games) and opportunities (e.g., after-school or summer programs) to the degree possible and that they model pro-STEM values by showing interest in STEM and discussing and modeling use of STEM concepts and materials. Inform them that STEM materials should be located in a neutral place in the home or in females' as often as males' home spaces. Provide students and their parents with information on various types of STEM resource materials, such as careers and career preparation, opportunities for STEM participation (e.g., available programs, contests, and events), and self-learning options (e.g., good print and online materials) related to increasing knowledge and skills, learning about female and male role models, coping with math anxiety, and accessing career information.
- Advocate for gender equity in the STEM disciplines at the school and community levels, as well as that of the wider society. This means sharing information and strategies with colleagues, parents, and students themselves, as well as seeking formal structural changes or policies and programs that will help forward this important educational agenda. For example, it is important to seek administrative support that is committed to providing quality STEM teachers with proper training in both STEM and gender issues, access to modern instructional technologies, gender-fair curricula, and assessment data that is disaggregated by sex. You might also start a professional learning community within or across schools that is devoted to gender issues in STEM. Being an advocate also means voicing your concerns when you witness inequitable or potentially harmful comments and actions.
- Continue to grow professionally by learning more about gender issues in the STEM disciplines and how to address these issues effectively. Two ways to do this are through engaging in structured professional development opportunities and professional reading. You might also audiotape or videotape your teaching for self-analysis or have a qualified individual evaluate your teaching for gender-fairness.