How to create a STEM dream culture for all students

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Students in Skyline High School’s Education and Community Health Pathway sculpt a clay model of the endocrine system.
 (Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

Can you imagine a class where students have uninterrupted time to play, dream and create with their peers? Giving students the room to be curious and imaginative is fundamental to building what former math and science teacher Christopher Emdin calls a dream culture. “If you give young people the space and time to play and dream, something is activated within them that supports them in every facet of their lives,” said Emdin, who is an education professor at the University of Southern California. He’s a firm believer that a dream culture is key to deepening students’ engagement and sense of belonging in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. 

Students who are girls, Black and Latinx are likely to experience doubts about their STEM abilities due to the lack of diversity in these fields. According to Pew Research Center, Black and Latinx people are underrepresented in STEM jobs. And while women make up half of the STEM workforce, they remain underrepresented in various professions, including computer and engineering jobs. Emdin’s book “STEM, STEAM, Make, Dream” outlines how teachers can make STEM education more inclusive, support students in reimagining their relationship to STEM subjects and help their learners become better dreamers. 

Show that STEM is subjective

STEM, a concept popularized in the early 2000s, merges together four powerful areas of study, and schools have increasingly sought to prepare students to pursue careers in these fields. Teachers may see objectivity and cold hard facts as the best way to promote rigor in STEM learning, but Emdin thinks this perspective is limiting because it does not acknowledge that life experiences and perspectives shape scientific inquiry. “To be objective is to be at a place of detachment from the human experience,” writes Emdin in his book. “It’s being at a place where one is not connected to how people feel or experience this world.” 


Recognizing subjectivity in STEM can make it more culturally relevant to students. Teachers who want to embrace STEM’s subjectivity can acknowledge that many cultures have STEM traditions that may not be included in textbooks. Additionally, women’s contributions to STEM have been largely erased. Emdin told MindShift that centering diverse people’s scientific and mathematical discoveries reveals how bias has long been a part of the discipline and invites students to connect to a more robust picture of STEM.

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“Subjectivity means knowing who you are, where you are, where you've been within [STEM], and then bringing that to the discipline to help the discipline heal from its missteps historically,” said Emdin. In his book, he spotlights math educator Mario Benabe, who teaches high school students about indigenous methods for measurement and calculation, and ethnomathematician Ron Eglash, who created lesson plans about the math principles involved in cornrow hair braiding.

Embrace emotions in the scientific process

Emotions might not be the first things that come to mind when one thinks about STEM education. However, putting emphasis on feelings over facts can give students permission to bring their authentic selves to STEM classes. “For teachers with the goal to connect learners to STEM, the emotions that either exist or do not exist are essential to understand,” Emdin writes. 

For example, if a student feels frustrated because they’re struggling to balance an equation, teachers can reassure them that big feelings are natural when solving tough problems. Teachers may say that being frustrated doesn’t mean that they are not smart enough or that STEM is too hard for them. It could mean that they identified an area where they need more support, information or practice. Research shows that emotions can lead to deeper learning and enable students to access their passion for academic subjects. If a student is feeling apathetic, they may be communicating that they need more culturally relevant examples to stoke their interest and help them feel more invested.

“It's not demeaning or anti-rigorous for you to begin conversations around STEM with emotion,” said Emdin. “We can teach that way and still get our intellectual rigor and academic heft.”

See students as scientists 

Students remember their bad experiences with learning STEM, which can lead to feelings of disconnection or fear. “I've seen children in sixth grade who, when introduced to a scientific algebraic formula, will literally shrink in their seats and break out in sweats,” Emdin said.

To help young people develop a positive STEM identity, he recommends that teachers point out students’ science-mindedness, which is “the skills, traits, attributes and dispositions of the most prolific and brilliant scientists and mathematicians of our time.” Instead of focusing on a student’s content knowledge or rote memorization, teachers can uplift skills that students are using all the time in social interactions and hobbies. For instance, a teacher might notice and compliment a child’s keen observation skills, analytical nature or the questions they pose. Then, teachers can note how well-known experts in STEM have these same traits. For example, they might mention that the way a student asks questions reminds them of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr.

“You start attaching their inherent characteristics that they've used to form their identity with STEM. And slowly you build upon those inherent strengths, and then you introduce more in-depth scientific skills,” said Emdin. 

Additionally, research shows that adding an arts component to STEM education, also known as STEAM, can provide another avenue for students to find their identities within these subjects. "The arts are the essence of our collective humanity that awakens us to our best selves," said Emdin, who also serves as the scholar/griot in residence at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts and is the creator of Science Genius, a program that explores hip hop and science.

He also encourages educators to expand the “A” in STEAM to include two more words: ancestry, which invites students to consider cultural contributions to science, and authenticity, which examines how students can bring their full selves to scientific inquiry. “It's essential for us to be able to deconstruct [STEAM] and then reconstruct it in ways that are more inclusive, more diverse, and more honoring of indigenous knowledge, of traditional knowledges and localized knowledges,” he said.

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Dreaming can be powerful and transformative. When students have a strong STEM identity, they’re able to dream about themselves and the world in ways that weren’t possible before. “I think we need to offer that luxury to young people. Time should not just be an affordance of those who are privileged,” Emdin said. “Poor folks, Black and brown folks, and marginalized folks need to have the luxury of time to play and time to dream.”