I started my career as a high school science teacher in rural Florida. Having grown up in Rhode Island, life in the deep south was a culture shock. When I started teaching, I learned all too quickly that a strong knowledge of science and doing hands-on, engaging (or so I thought) activities can only get you so far—especially working with students who were culturally and racially different from me.
I realized that, to be an effective teacher, I needed to find a way to bridge this cultural divide that existed between me and my students. There were often profound differences in the ways we thought about and engaged with science. Over time, I learned about the importance of relationships. However, it was more than just caring: for me to truly reach my students, I needed to have an understanding of who they were and what they believed.
Today, in my work as an educational design researcher at CEHD, I’m focused on devising and testing solutions to the problem of equity and access in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education – particularly for students of color. I’ve learned that curriculum solutions work best when created in partnership with the communities they aim to serve. This culturally responsive approach to STEM education is crucial to empowering student success, but it’s not always an easy approach to master, especially for new teachers. However, with some helpful strategies—and a commitment to listening to their students and families—it can provide great benefits.
Combining Cultural and Science Knowledge in STEM Education
In studying culturally responsive educational methods, we must be mindful of the end goal of conveying science knowledge and teaching students how to apply it. This is especially important in today’s reform-oriented educational environment, in which teachers have strict curriculums and standards to meet. Teachers must come prepared with a strong knowledge of the content. However, our research shows that presenting a STEM education curriculum in a manner that’s tailored to the cultural background of the students actually improves their ability to learn the content.
By using examples and cultural knowledge familiar to students, teachers can reduce inconsistencies between the student’s home and school experience, increasing the authenticity of the science learning. While it does take an effort on the teacher’s part, we find that it fosters students’ enthusiasm for STEM education and improves outcomes, especially in underserved communities.
The Hybrid Approach to STEM Education
Based on my research and classroom experience, I’ve discovered that the best culturally responsive STEM education approach seeks to combine the students’ cultural knowledge and science curriculum into what scholars call “hybrid knowledge” or “third space.” I like to think of it as a Venn diagram; the left sphere is the science knowledge that must be conveyed as part of state-approved STEM education standards. On the right, we have cultural knowledge that teachers must learn from their students and their families. It’s in the intersection of these two areas—this “hybrid knowledge”—where we find the most potential for culturally responsive teaching.
Here’s an example of how this concept can be used in the classroom: In Minneapolis, seventh grade science students may be required to complete a unit on how the immune system protects against microscopic organisms such as bacteria and fungi that can infect the human body. To make the unit more engaging, it may focus on oral health care, one of the key areas where bacteria and other microorganisms can cause disease. Let’s look at how this curriculum could be tailored to students from Minneapolis’ large Somali community.
Typically a lesson might ask students to share information about their oral health care practices and then speculate with a couple of reasons for tooth decay and causes of common oral diseases. Teachers might assume that Western practices like toothpaste, toothbrushes and mouthwash are the norm and center the discussion on those techniques.
However, in Somali culture, oral health care practices may be very different, particularly for recent immigrants. For example, Somali immigrants have previously reported using a stick brush (or miswak) five times a day in advance of their Islamic prayers. They also use activated charcoal as a whitening and cleaning agent. These practices date back many centuries and are the source of great cultural pride. Scientific research has documented that the miswack effectively removes plaque and inhibits periodontal disease. In addition, instead of using Snickers bars or other candy as examples of food that causes tooth decay, the teacher could use Somali sweets like halwa (a spiced sugar confection) or unripe mango in the lesson.
By using these cultural touchpoints in developing a STEM education curriculum, teachers will see multiple benefits: students more eager to learn, improved relationships with students and families and conveying a real sense of involvement to the students. Culturally responsive teaching techniques are crucial if we are to make progress in reducing the achievement gap and encouraging educational equity in science and math. Our next generation of STEM students depends on it.
Tips for Creating a Culturally Responsive STEM Education Curriculum
Working with your students and families to implement cultural knowledge into your lesson plans can be highly rewarding, but many teachers don’t know where to start. Here are a few tips you can use in developing your curriculum.
Academic success and cultural relevance must work together. Too often, people assume that the time spent creating culturally responsive STEM education techniques comes at the expense of the science content. This is not true. In fact, we see that students actually learn the content better when it’s presented in a familiar context.
Develop critical thinking skills. For students growing up in today’s information-rich society, it’s not enough to merely learn science facts. They need to be able to apply them. Encourage your students’ critical thinking skills by having them use science concepts to study their own environment and communities.
Engage with the community. It’s hard to fully understand a culture and the values that are important to its members at a distance. As much as possible, engage with the community you serve both in and out of school, then apply what you learn to your lesson plans.
Use technology to provide access. Often parents from underserved communities find it difficult to participate in school activities because of work and financial concerns. My colleague and I are currently studying the use of online learning environments like Flipgrid as a way to asynchronously engage students, parents and science teachers in the development of a culturally responsive curriculum.
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