In Maggie Waldner’s elementary school classroom in downtown Denver, math lessons rarely focus on rote memorization. She talks about problem solving and real-world issues, like homelessness. And she makes sure her racially diverse class of boys and girls learns about mathematicians and scientists who look like them. Especially the girls.

This is what culturally responsive instruction looks like in STEM education.

For a while now, schools across the country have used culturally responsive teaching practices in English and history classrooms, engaging learners in the material by incorporating their own experiences and cultures. In science and math, though, it’s a fairly new idea.

But experts say finding better ways to teach STEM to students of color and girls is urgent. While women make up half of the college-educated workforce in the U.S., they hold less than one third of the jobs in science and engineering. Black and Latina women make up just 3 percent of that workforce.

A new report by 100Kin10, an organization focused on ending the STEM teacher shortage, places part of the blame for this shortage on the lack of high-quality STEM courses in high schools, which in turn results in fewer students developing an interest in STEM subjects and discouraging them from pursuing STEM teaching careers. Too often the STEM classes that are offered are of poor quality and fail to recognize the experiences and contributions of women and people of color in these fields. High-quality STEM education, the report states, makes coursework “relevant to students’ lives and passions,” with a focus on applied learning, rather than holding tight to rote practices.

After a summer of protests over racial justice, coupled with a pandemic that has exacerbated educational inequality, calls on educators across the country to better teach ethnically diverse groups of students have become more urgent.

Waldner, who teaches at the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a public charter, is a member of 100Kin10’s Teacher Forum. She has long incorporated culturally responsive practices and strategies into her classroom. Her approach is twofold, she said. She provides students “windows and mirrors,” so they can see themselves and their community in the curriculum, and also shows them the lives and experiences of those who are different from them. By centering teaching around these practices, she said, teachers can ensure that what students learn isn’t irrelevant to what they experience outside of school.

Read the full article about supporting women of color in STEM by Javeria Salman at The Hechinger Report.