Expert Perspectives

Community Is the Key to Unlocking the Full Potential of STEM Education

Ever since the United States was beaten in the race to space by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, our country has placed an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — hoping to usher in an era of American leadership in these important fields. However, as often happens within the education system, those attending the classes often wonder, “When am I ever going to use what they are teaching me?” This is a sentiment many teachers, especially those in STEM subjects, have often had to overcome when engaging their students.

Luckily, this obstacle has not caused their enthusiasm to wane and is instead challenging teachers to adapt their plans to directly correlate their subjects to life events. Unfortunately, this is not the only obstacle facing STEM teachers. A lack of cultural diversity among professionals along with unequal access to quality resources in educational settings are also affecting STEM educators. While the correlation between the former and STEM education may not be immediately obvious, it actually makes a big difference as diversity not only brings new perspectives, but also motivates both teachers and students when they see someone similar to themselves succeeding in the field. According to Pew Research, minorities only make up 33% of the STEM workforce, down 4% from the total share of the overall workforce.

Interestingly, it is corporations who are teaming up with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to address these challenges and making a difference. While we are using our creativity to engage students and make the subject fun and interesting, it is with the support of businesses and organizations that the field will truly flourish.

Collaboration is Key to Advancing STEM Participation

Already we are seeing non-profit organizations, businesses and higher educational institutions within our communities address the resource gap and working to diversify the field. For example, the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) has made a huge impact in the lives of many teachers worldwide by opening the door to networking opportunities and providing relevant resources to advance their professional development. Through these networking opportunities, I’ve been able to secure relationships with other teachers to share ideas and even start our own movement called One Band, One Sound — a campaign where we used recycled materials to create instruments, learning about physics and sound waves, and sharing our music with students and teachers around the world.

Along with NSTA, the support I have received as a recipient of the Shell Urban Science Educators Development Award has been invaluable. Shell has been a long-time advocate of diversity and inclusion within the space and it truly shows. Through various initiatives and programs, NSTA and Shell have given minority educators a platform to connect, share their stories, and work together to advance STEM education.

In fact, they have helped me realize that the local community is a great resource for teachers to turn to in our quest to further enrich our own professional development. For example, I have reached out to local industry professionals to act as mentors for 22 educators who meet monthly to discuss how the field is evolving and how this evolution can apply to their teaching plans. By understanding the latest advancements in STEM from professionals living and breathing the work every day, educators are able to ensure their lesson plans are up-to-date and relevant — making it easier to inspire the next generation.

Bringing the 'Real World' into the Classroom

As educators, we are often a student’s first introduction into a subject or field. Therefore, it is critical that we are not only making learning fun for our students but also, more importantly, making it relevant to pique their interest. Oftentimes, the real-world applications of our subjects can get lost as we focus on preparing students for state mandated exams. Yet, this is often how our students lose their joy and interest in learning.

Bearing this in mind, I try to ensure my lesson plans extend beyond just the classroom — even if it is by incorporating something simple. For example, when working on science projects I have my students wear white lab coats to promote the experience of being a “scientist.” I feel that it is important for the students to look and act the part of a scientist, measurer, recorder, etc. when learning and doing group exercises as it allows their imaginations to run wild with the idea that they are actually in that role. Additionally, by assigning the roles I mentioned, I am helping to build my students’ soft skills in leadership, communication and collaboration.

What has truly made the biggest impact in my opinion, is enabling students to hear directly from the professionals themselves. While educators can lay the foundational interested, hearing from someone who looks like they do and has been in their exact shoes gives them the hope and confidence they need to consider these career paths as a real option. In fact, two of my former students, one in nursing school and the other in medical school, have made guest appearances in my classroom to engage with my second-grade class and you can see the rising interest their experiences are fostering.

It is clear that STEM-related industries and the education system need to be updated and rebalanced to make it an equal access and appropriately represented field. The keys to unlocking the full potential are there, but it will take a combined effort of public and private institutions to redesign the system to best maximize the potential of all students. Our future is bright, if we all come together to win this next great race!

About the Author

Dr. Melissa Collins teaches second grade in Memphis, Tennessee. She is passionate about global learning, STEM, and teacher leadership. She was a 2014 finalist for Tennessee Teacher of the Year and is a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, a National Board-certified teacher, a founder of the National Board Network of Accomplished Minority Educators and serve on National Board Professional Standards Board, 2017 Shell Urban Educators Development Award winner, serve on the advisory committee for the National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR), a 2020 TN National University Teacher Award Winner, a 2020 National Teacher Hall of Fame Inductee, and 2021 Amazon Future Engineer Teacher of the Year.