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For all students, regardless of their future plans, development of STEM identity and comfort with STEM concepts are critical parts of their educational experience. The logic and critical thinking skills, and the confidence that comes with those skills, can benefit students throughout their lives in both professional and personal contexts.

But there is a disconnect between STEM identity – feeling comfortable and seeing oneself in STEM – and STEM achievement in Minnesota. Statewide test scores do not reflect the skills, comfort, and growth mindset that students bring to STEM learning. This disconnect is particularly pronounced among Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Latinx students, and represents a key way that historically underserved students are currently being underserved. This is a system failure, and no matter your position within that system – as an educator, parent, policy maker, or community member – it is our shared responsibility to correct this failure and promote the success of all our students.

Our kids have a sense of comfort and belonging in STEM

To understand this disconnect, let’s start with our elementary school students. Minnesota’s 4th graders rate themselves moderately high on the characteristics needed in STEM, like hard work and persistence, engagement in activities that challenge thinking, and interest in complex problem-solving. These characteristics are key to a STEM identity. They can also be understood as important characteristics for piquing interest in STEM activities and succeeding in STEM subjects.

More than two-thirds of Minnesota’s 4th graders say they keep working hard even when they feel like quitting. Well over half say they like activities that challenge their thinking ability. There is a bit more room for improvement on the share of fourth graders who prefer complex problems to easy problems. But overall, this means that 4th grade students are meeting us at a pretty good place in terms of their STEM identity.

4th graders self-rated STEM identity

4th graders’ self-rated STEM identity
Minnesota, 2019
Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

Moreover, when we look at measures of STEM identity, we see very few gaps by race and ethnicity. This means that gaps in STEM achievement are not starting in the students themselves. Rather, students participate in systems – like education, out-of-school time, and home and community – with norms, policies, and practices that result in gaps.

We are disproportionately failing our Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Latinx students 

When we look at measures of STEM achievement, we see large and persistent gaps by race and ethnicity. On the whole, Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Latinx students fall 22 percentage points or more below statewide proficiency levels.

Table showing American Indian, Asian, Black, and LatinX students fall 22 percentage points or more below statewide proficiency levels

Students’ reading, science, and math proficiency
Minnesota, 2019
Source: Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA)

This reflects a failure on our part to support students in turning their skills, drive, and comfort in STEM into STEM achievement. This might also reflect a failure in the measurement or definition of STEM achievement. While being proficient with STEM concepts is important, drive and liking challenging activities may be just as critical for long-term success in STEM.

Why should this matter to me, and what can I do?

Achievement gaps are the result of system failures. We see this in the difference between inequalities in STEM identities and STEM achievement – students have the persistence, drive, and desire to perform, but it is the responsibility of the adults in the system to turn that into content proficiency.

Parents and teachers may have the most direct interactions with students, but all of us directly and indirectly support students – through our relationships, interactions, votes, civic engagement, and tax dollars. We are all responsible for – and quite frankly, our shared well-being depends on – eliminating gaps in achievement. Students are starting with solid STEM identity. We are not recognizing and lifting up those characteristics in ways that translate into STEM achievement. So what can you do?

No matter where you sit in the STEM ecosystem, our STEM access toolkit provides concrete recommendations and action steps for you. The ecosystem approach shifts responsibility for STEM learning and success from individual learners – who have the necessary STEM identity and interest – to educators, organizations, funders, policymakers, and systems – who are disproportionately failing large groups of students. Please explore the resources in the toolkit to see how and where your help is needed.