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The Inequities of the STEM Education System


Every month, members of Oregon Student Voice come together to discuss and learn about a timely topic together. These meetings– completely student-led– are an opportunity for middle and high schoolers to share their opinions and experiences. The comments shared help OSV guide organization-wide efforts and inform other education stakeholders on students’ thoughts. This month, students across the state discussed their concerns with the way STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is taught in schools.


This month’s meeting, especially, exposed disparities between rural and urban school districts. Oregon Student Voice has always had a mission of representing all students in decision making, with an emphasis on engaging rural students in discussions like these.


Rural vs. Urban School Districts

One of the issues discussed at January’s meeting revolved around student engagement. Around the state, students shared a similar sentiment: teachers are the determining factor of student engagement. Despite having the same materials and curriculum, different teachers can be a make or break for a student’s STEM experience.


This is where the first rural/urban disparity arose. Urban school districts often have more funding to hire teachers with better training, meaning students living in the Portland Metro Area are more likely to receive engaging teachers, and therefore engaging STEM courses. Because school districts are primarily funded by the property taxes of the areas around them, school districts in Southern and Eastern regions are often underfunded. STEM classes often require a large upfront cost for in class materials, curriculum, and training. The funding disparities were truly highlighted at the meeting when comparing classes offered in Portland Public Schools and courses in other, more rural school districts. Members also brought up that many STEM internships are only offered to students living in the Portland Metro Area, leaving other students without opportunities to expand their STEM experiences. Even when these internships are online, they’re still geographically limiting. In addition, many rural schools don’t have the resources to start extracurriculars like robotics teams that require lots of funding.


However, solutions are hard to come across, other than statewide funding changes. OSV members discussed many possible solutions to this huge inequity. Mandated curriculums and lesson plans seem great, but oftentimes teachers aren’t excited about them. They may gloss over the material or just teach out of a textbook in order to satisfy government requirements. The most comprehensive solution OSV members found was an increase in materials and training for teachers. Many teachers received education that is now outdated, or simply don’t have the resources to implement their knowledge. Rural members, understandably, said they felt jealous of the Portland Metro Area’s opportunities and courses.


Sexism

The other massive inequity talked about at January’s meeting was sexism in the STEM community. With a majority female-identifying membership base, OSV’s members recounted story after story of the sexism they had faced in their STEM classes. Female-identifying students felt out of place in their STEM classes, despite being just as qualified and interested in the subject. There was a significant lack of girls in STEM classes and extracurriculars. Oftentimes, female-identifying students felt like they weren’t taken seriously by their teachers. They were told to step back to watch their male counterparts, saw inequities in grading and opportunities, and felt disrespected. The sexism extends far past the classroom. In STEM based extracurriculars, girls felt even more out of place, often being underestimated and dismissed by their fellow (male) members and advisors.


The lack of female STEM role models decreases young girls’ interests in these fields. Starting as early as elementary school, female students are discouraged from STEM subjects. According to members, engaging curriculum needs to be implemented from a young age, intentionally keeping girls involved in STEM. Students stated that it’s up to teachers to change these outcomes and class dynamics. Although female representation in STEM has increased over the past few years, it still has a long way to go.


Lack of Racial Diversity

Similarly, there is a severe lack of nonwhite STEM role models for young students of color to look up to. The common core curriculum is often extremely whitewashed, focusing around famous white scientists, researchers, mathematicians, etc. STEM courses and extracurriculars are often overwhelmingly made up of white, male-identifying students, making students of color feel uncomfortable in those spaces.


There needs to be an increase in funding for inclusive and diverse STEM education. Often, education activists advocate for the decolonization of social studies and language arts courses. However, the decolonization of the STEM curriculum is equally as important. Students that don’t see themselves represented in this field are going to be discouraged from participating.

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Overall, January’s conversation exposed many issues with the current STEM community. With the disparities between urban and rural school districts, female and male students, white students and students of color, it’s clear that the Oregon education system has a long way to go. If children are the future, as many education decision makers preach, then all students need to be encouraged in their learning environment. In our rapidly changing world, STEM needs to be more inclusive and available to all students.



Emily Zou is a sophomore at Lakeridge High School and serves as the Co-Executive Director of Recruitment and Trainings for Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.