What do we mean when we say that we want all students participating in STEM education? When we speak about "STEM for All," it's crucial to clarify the breadth and depth of "all." This term encompasses more than just a universal offer; it's a commitment to inclusivity, ensuring every student, irrespective of their background, has equitable access to STEM education. Our aim is to move beyond vague generalizations and address specific aspects of our pedagogy and tools to reach those that have been historically underrepresented or overlooked in STEM fields.

By defining "all," we acknowledge the diverse tapestry of learners in our classrooms. It's about recognizing the unique challenges and barriers that different groups face and proactively working to dismantle these obstacles. The focus shifts from a one-size-fits-all approach to a more nuanced understanding of equity and access in education. In doing so, we aim to create a STEM education landscape that not only welcomes but actively supports and nurtures every learner’s potential.

The Reality of Underrepresentation in STEM

Current statistics paint a concerning picture of underrepresentation in STEM fields. Research has illustrated many times that certain demographics remain significantly underrepresented in STEM education and careers. For example, Black and Hispanic adults are less likely to earn degrees in STEM than other degree fields, and they continue to make up a lower share of STEM graduates relative to their share of the adult population. Additionally, Hispanic workers represented 15% of the total STEM workforce in 2021, and Asian and Black workers were 10% and 9%, respectively. American Indians and Alaska Natives together made up less than 1% of the U.S. population and STEM workforce in 2021.

These disparities are not just numbers; they reflect systemic issues in how we approach STEM education. Underrepresentation stems from a range of factors, including socio-economic challenges, lack of access to quality STEM resources, and a lack of quality teacher professional development around STEM pedagogy. This data compels us to examine our educational practices and reframe our strategies to be responsive to the needs of all educators and learners.

Universal Design for Learning and Engineering Notebooks

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments to accommodate individual learning differences. Recognizing that each student learns in a unique manner, UDL proposes that curriculum should be designed from the outset to provide multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement.

The importance of UDL lies in its foundational belief that a one-size-fits-all approach to education is inadequate for addressing the diverse needs of today’s students. UDL promotes inclusivity and accessibility in the classroom by suggesting that educators offer a variety of ways for students to access content, demonstrate their knowledge, and engage with their learning. This is particularly vital in STEM education, where traditionally rigid teaching methods may not adequately address the diverse needs of learners. By integrating UDL principles, teachers can create a dynamic learning environment that not only fosters a deeper understanding of STEM subjects but also ensures that every student has an opportunity to succeed and develop a passion for these critical fields.

In the pursuit of making STEM accessible to all, one practical tool that stands out is the use of Engineering Notebooks. Engineering Notebooks offer a tangible and immediate strategy that teachers can integrate into their curriculum, aligning seamlessly with the (UDL) guidelines.

  1. Providing Multiple Means of Representation: Engineering Notebooks facilitate varied methods of presenting information. They allow students to document their ideas, observations, and processes in multiple formats – diagrams, charts, written descriptions, and mathematical expressions. This aligns with the UDL principle of presenting information in different ways to cater to diverse learners. For instance, a student who excels in visual thinking can use diagrams extensively, while another who is more verbal may prefer detailed descriptions.
  2. Offering Multiple Means of Action and Expression: The notebooks serve as a platform for students to express their understanding and knowledge in a way that best suits their abilities. Whether it's through drawing, writing, or calculating, students have the autonomy to use their strengths to convey their ideas. This approach dovetails with the UDL's emphasis on providing various ways for students to express what they know, accommodating learners with different strengths and challenges.
  3. Providing Multiple Means of Engagement: The process of maintaining an Engineering Notebook can be highly engaging for students. It encourages active participation, problem-solving, and personal reflection, which are critical components of the UDL's engagement guideline. The notebook becomes a personal space where students can connect their learning to their interests and experiences, fostering motivation and enthusiasm in STEM learning.

Engineering Notebooks are not just tools for documentation; they are vehicles for inclusive education. They support the principles of UDL by offering flexibility in how students access, engage with, and demonstrate their learning in STEM. By incorporating Engineering Notebooks into their teaching practices, educators can take a significant step towards a classroom where every student's potential is recognized and nurtured.

Embracing Inclusivity through Practical Tools in STEM Education

In sum, "STEM for All" is more than a slogan; it's a commitment to an educational approach that embraces and celebrates diversity. By defining "all" comprehensively, we acknowledge the unique challenges faced by underrepresented groups in STEM fields and take a critical step towards addressing these disparities. The statistics on underrepresentation not only highlight existing gaps but also serve as a call to action for educators and policymakers to foster a more inclusive STEM environment.

The introduction of Engineering Notebooks as aligned with the Universal Design for Learning guidelines exemplifies how practical tools can be transformative in achieving this inclusivity. These notebooks are not just a means of recording information; they are a testament to the adaptability and responsiveness of STEM education to the varied needs and strengths of every learner. By incorporating such tools, educators can create learning experiences that are accessible, engaging, and empowering for all students.

About the author

Jason McKenna is an experienced educator and author of What STEM Can Do for Your Classroom: Improving Student Problem Solving, Collaboration, and Engagement, Grade K-6. As the Vice President of Global Education Strategy for VEX Robotics, he specializes in curriculum development and global educational strategy, focusing on STEM integration and 21st-century learning. His work involves engaging with educators and policymakers worldwide.