STEMulate her mind

Illustration of two young Black girls reaching up for equipment representing a STEM education, kept out of their reach
Jason Yen/Staff

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Despite living in Silicon Valley — the epicenter of technological innovation — Black children attending public schools in the surrounding underserved areas, such as Oakland, are not benefitting from a multitude of opportunities that could bridge social injustice and inequity in education.

Why are young elementary and middle school girls of color, in particular, failing to realize that STEM has historical roots in Africa? Do they know that science, technology, engineering and mathematics is a major reflection of their heritage? Our young Black girls are falling behind in their academic pursuits due to a series of educational, health and socioeconomic systems.

Only 5.4% of the total doctorate degrees in 2017 were awarded to Black students. As a Black female doctoral student within a small pool of candidates, I want to ensure that young girls of color in public schools reach the educational and intellectual potential that would help them attain lucrative careers and create financial wealth for themselves and their families.

Sadly, women of color only represent 3% of STEM professionals. Early exposure to STEM classes would create a pool of educated young professionals that reflect the diverse demographics of their communities. These young girls would then become role models for the next generation of successful STEM professionals.

The education system’s goal is to give all children the opportunity to receive a quality education and provide them with the necessary skills to be productive people in the society that they live in. However, the public school systems in most underserved cities are failing their Black children. While advocacy aims to reverse ineffective teaching methods and curriculum and dispel the stereotypes of Black children’s learning abilities, there is still much work to be done.

Unconscious biases of teachers, unskilled educators, lack of culturally designed tools and mentorship are all a detriment to Black children’s education. Rather than receiving a quality education that includes all history rather than a colonialist perspective, the full spectrum of education for minority students is disconnected and our Black children are struggling. In addition, most elementary school teachers are generalists and are trained with limited specialty in the STEM fields; hence, the subjects can be a source of anxiety for children and lead to avoidance of approaching the topics.

Undoubtedly, improvement in the school performance of girls of color in math and science is necessary; we need more game changers, specialists and partnerships with Silicon Valley firms to bridge the gap that will bring income into low-income families and communities, changing the status quo. While such firms as HP Inc. and Google have made contributions and established partnerships with local schools, we need more from other Silicon Valley firms and organizations in the Bay Area to address inequalities in STEM education and work experience opportunities. Partnerships are able to provide children with access to mentors and specialized classes that public schools are otherwise unable to provide.

Educators, community advocates and, more importantly, parents are the drivers of change in the educational system. Without financial and technology resources, it is impossible for schools to achieve the basic components for improvement in STEM education alone. We must rally as a community to make the necessary changes in our public schools if we want Black girls to succeed. For example, in a recent policy change by the San Francisco School District, Algebra 1 is now offered in the 9th grade, which has led to increased scores in math for all students.

Unfortunately, the barrier to STEM for Black girls is intersectional. While young girls and boys perform equally well in math and science throughout high school, as students approach college, girls begin to take less advanced STEM courses.

This gender gap has no natural origin, considering studies show that young boys and girls have an equal inclination toward STEM subjects. In an examination on gender color preferences for math in 5-year-olds, young girls favored toys and math-related games of specific pink and purple tones that contrasted with young boys’ inclinations toward blue and red tones. However, the same study reported that both sexes had a roughly equal interest in math games, as measured by playtimes.

Considering they have equal ability and interest, why then, are girls less likely to pursue STEM careers?

One explanation is gender socialization — for instance, boys are encouraged to obtain skilled professions, while girls are groomed to care for others — which perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Because children are heavily influenced at a young age, gender-specific toys and colors can shape the way they align themselves, and what fields they pursue in this society.

In order to address the lack of interest in STEM, we must engage our underserved students at an early age and employ innovative teaching techniques that celebrate their cultural identity and authentic selves. We would have the possibility for a richer world, states, cities and communities if all of our children were excited about innovative learning and subjects related to STEM. Without a doubt, we will foster successful and productive students that will ultimately lead to lucrative and rewarding professions in STEM.

Reaching out to city officials, school administrators and companies to support STEM-related workshops to give underserved kids of different backgrounds exposure to exciting professions is the first step.

Let us inspire, motivate and support these young Black girls to reach higher academic excellence in STEM fields.

Jacqueline Harrison is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California, focusing on achieving equal opportunity and social justice, with an emphasis on literacy proficiency and redirecting the educational trajectory to STEM for girls of color.