Important Principles Involved in Considering Race and Ethnicity In STEM Outreach Initiatives

Dr. Jerome Morris, University of Georgia
Dr. Alan Shaw, Kennesaw State University

Addressing concerns related to race and ethnicity is one of the explicit goals of the Broadening Participation objectives in many of the NSF’s initiatives. Those objectives involve making good faith outreach efforts to groups that are underrepresented in the STEM fields. Along with women and persons with disabilities, the underrepresented groups include African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Pacific Islanders. This list of racial and ethnic minorities should make it clear that good faith outreach efforts should consider basic questions about what makes the racial and ethnic identities within these groups unique, and what is relevant about the circumstantial and historical realities faced by these groups. There are critical social, cultural, and policy issues to explore in order to provide a lens for understanding the relationship between culture, schooling and learning, as well as to apply such thinking to any approach to remedy the problem of underrepresentation. In order to address these issues, any outreach effort needs to (1) consider the dynamic interplay between macro forces (geography, economics, politics, race and ethnic forces) and micro forces (groups’ cultural patterns and beliefs) in influencing access to opportunities and the students’ choice to participate in the opportunities; (2) consider how culture emanates from structural forces, that culture is learned, and that people change cultural patterns and acquire new ones; and (3) consider the various groups who directly influence the particular cultures and cultural identities involved (e.g., family, school, religious communities) and how these different groups might play integral roles in outreach efforts.

Traditional STEM considerations that ignore issues of culture and identity at the macro and micro level are simply inadequate to fully address the problem of underrepresentation among specific racial and ethnic minorities. However, where traditional approaches fail, broader approaches that incorporate the arts and design within STEM activities offer a clear way forward. Two previous NSF funded initiatives are both a case in point. One sought to combine Native American culture and art with explorations of computer and computational science (NSF Award #CNS-0540484), and another sought to teach fundamental STEM paradigms using visual arts modules featuring African American artwork (NSF Award #HRD-0625731). These projects brought issues of “cultural resonance” into STEM curricula, and yet along with their successes, the projects also revealed a need to incorporate more hands-on design-related activities into the students’ experience. Incorporating cultural experiences along with the act of building something meaningful in a shared context touches on issues of identity in more ways than does just incorporating cultural content alone. The way forward involves moving from STEM to STEAM/SEAD initiatives that explicitly address issues of culture and identity and that involve the constructionist notion of building shared constructions. In this paper, we will provide a framework for how to examine and address these issues in practical ways, and we will offer suggested actions for implementation.