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Cultivating a STEM Classroom Culture

What does a stimulating, minds-on STEM classroom culture look like? What shapes a productive STEM classroom culture? More importantly, what does a thriving STEM classroom culture look like, sound like, and feel like? We all want each of our scholars (PreK-12) to engage in STEM learning experiences that contribute to their STEM identity development and empowers them to be learners and doers of STEM. But how do we, as educators, create a STEM classroom culture that allows our scholars to be innovators, solution seekers, collaborators, mathematicians, and scientists?

When scholars enter the classroom, they may not readily identify themselves as mathematicians, scientists, or STEMists. The message about who does and does not belong in STEM is portrayed in the media and throughout society in general.  For example, children’s television shows related to STEM confirm that White males are the ones who belong in STEM as represented by characters such as Jimmy Neutron, Bill Nye, and others. When coupled with the proliferation of images of Einstein, Newton, and others in school curriculum, a common conception of who belongs in the STEM community is a stereotypical image of old, White males. Therefore, it is important to cultivate a classroom environment that fosters scholars’ STEM sense of belonging, so scholars see themselves as STEMists. For example, when engaging scholars in STEM learning on meteorology and atmospheric science, it would be important to include the contributions of June Bacon-Bercey, the first Black woman meteorologist in the United States and trailblazer in meteorology; Dr. Joanne Simpson, the first woman to receive a PhD in meteorology who made significant contributions to atmospheric science; Ada Monzón, the first woman meteorologist in Puerto Rico and a founding member of Climate without Borders (an organization that spreads awareness and information on climate change); and Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space who helped pioneer a satellite to observe weather in space. When existing personal identities match scholars’ social and cultural cues, a sense of belonging develops (Master et al., 2016). Representation matters!It is necessary to incorporate STEMists from a variety of cultural backgrounds (gender, race, ability, etc.) in your lessons so scholars see themselves represented in STEM. It would also be productive to call your scholars scientists, mathematicians, STEMists, and fill your classroom walls with their STEM contributions.

Who is Doing the Work?

We are all familiar with the phrase, “the one doing the work is the one doing the learning.” We want to empower our scholars to take an active role in their own learning through questioning, seeking solutions to complex challenges, conducting their own research, and drawing conclusions based on evidence. Immersing our scholars in integrated STEM learning experiences where they have opportunities to apply their mathematics and science content knowledge as well as the practices is key. Doing so provides space for scholars to 1) use critical and creative thinking to seek solutions; 2) collaborate and use appropriate tools to engage in iterative design; 3) communicate solutions based on evidence and data; and 4) recognize and use structures in real-world systems. These four practices constitute the Integrated STEM Practices (Jackson et al., 2024a, 2024b, which were synthesized from the Science and Engineering Practices (NGSS, 2013), Standards for Mathematics Practice (CCSSO, 2010), and the Technology and Engineering Practices (ITEEA, 2020). As an example,  if there is a natural prairie ecosystem on your school’s campus, scholars can investigate the local prairie ecosystem by collecting unique and authentic data. They can engage in research of a nearby State-run restoration zone and compare it to their local prairie. Educators can teach the concepts of biodiversity, species abundance, ecosystem services, and food webs within the local ecosystem readily available to you and your scholars. Scholars can calculate statistics from scholar-collected data and comparisons can be made between your local prairie ecosystem and restored prairies across the state.

Tips for Cultivating a STEM Classroom Culture

Here are some tips to consider as you cultivate a STEM classroom culture:

  • Engage scholars in the four Integrated STEM Practices (Jackson et al., 2024a, 2024b),
  • Provide opportunities for scholars to belong within the STEM classroom,
  • Encourage scholars to ask critical and creative questions,
  • Allow scholars opportunities to plan and conduct unique investigations centered on seeking solutions to meaningful and interesting challenges in our world, and
  • Collaborate with teachers across disciplines and community partners.

Whatever your discipline, grade level, and classroom context, cultivating a STEM classroom culture is essential for all learners.

The STEM classroom culture will emanate a sense of belonging among scholars, which will enable them to thrive.

 

Written by

Christa Jackson is a Professor of Mathematics, Science, and STEM Education at Saint Louis University. She is the Founder and Director of the Institute for STEM Collaboration, Outreach, and Education (iSCORE), where she focuses on transforming the STEM community through fostering students’ STEM literacy development, STEM identities, and STEM sense of belonging. She is a professional developer and a mathematics and STEM consultant as well as an author on “Simplifying STEM: Four Equitable Practices to Inspire Meaningful Learning” and “Powerful Mathematicians who Changed the World” book series.

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