America's untapped STEM potential

Steve V. Coxon

America’s pipeline for STEM talent is happily expanding, but many groups remain severely underrepresented. This leads to huge disparities in the applicant pool for STEM careers. One reason is clear: family wealth.

Poverty squanders a wealth of STEM potential in childhood. In 2012, 21 percent of children in the U.S. lived in poverty, and that number is increasing. Poverty restricts academic promise in a variety of ways, including inadequate healthcare, lack of access to high-quality preschool and day care, a paucity of school resources, fewer good teachers, and increased school bureaucracy. Despite these disadvantages, there are still more than a million poor children nationwide who rank in the top quartile academically when they start school. Unfortunately, only about half of these children will remain there by the end of fifth grade, and they are twice as likely to drop out of high school as their middle class peer of the same ability. While many have the potential to pursue STEM, the odds are stacked against them.

To ensure that children from low-income families are included in the STEM talent pipeline, we need to start early, provide engaging STEM activities beyond the school day, and connect with families. Certainly by age four, children can design and conduct simple experiments such as determining whether water or light is more important to plants. Career discussions need not wait for high school; aspirations are important. Children from low-income backgrounds are less likely to hear about career possibilities that aren’t a feature of their everyday lives. Engineers and programmers should be discussed along with firefighters and athletes.

Likewise, the vocabulary of STEM should be used as routine language by early childhood educators: innovation, design, hypothesis, and other related terms. Children from low-income households are less likely to hear these terms at home than their middle class peers, and so it is up to their teachers to introduce them in class discussions.

Children from low-income backgrounds are more likely to attend under-resourced schools. Afterschool and summer programs can partially compensate for this. In my own grant-funded work, I have helped start several Junior FIRST LEGO League (JFLL) teams at high-poverty schools. The program engages children ages 6–9 in real-world problem solving using robotics. Along with other necessary resources, providing stipends has helped us find teachers willing to serve as coaches (originally our limiting factor). Participating students work very much like STEM innovators, creating working solutions to existing problems.

Parent connections are also vital for keeping low-income students in the STEM pipeline. Children need their parents as advocates to ensure that they pursue advanced math and science coursework in middle and high school, but many low-income parents lack the knowledge and social capital to do this. They should be taught strategies for working with their children’s schools and verifying that they are taking part in appropriately challenging coursework. Likewise, parents should be encouraged to substitute language—speaking about “when” their children go to college, not “if.”

They should also receive information on college access and funding—an abundance of which exists for bright, STEM-minded students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In my own work with low-income parents, I have found that providing dinner, childcare, and invitations through personal phone calls helps garner the highest attendance at scheduled parent workshops, which should be frequent, goal-driven, and cumulative.

There is much to be done to improve the STEM pipeline for low-income students. We have a limitless need to improve the world through STEM education and innovation. Let us take a stand and do all that we can to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not held back from talent development in STEM.

Steve V. Coxon is an associate professor of education at Maryville University. This post is an excerpt from Teaching for High Potential (Fall 2014).