#154 – Increasing Equity in STEM, with Cari Warnock

Unpacking Education February 1, 2023 27 min

While women make up approximately half of the U.S. population, a 2021 report from the Pew Research Center shows that female employees represent only 15% of the workforce in engineering fields, 25% in computing jobs, and 40% in the physical sciences.

Our guest, Cari Warnock, a STEM leader and educational consultant, reflects on the present landscape of diversity in STEM fields, asking some key questions: “Can we create equity in STEM? Absolutely. Are we working towards it in some areas? Yes. Do we have a long way to go? Probably.”

Warnock believes that without a diversity of people at the table, we will not be able to solve the complex problems that we are encountering in the world. She adds, “When we have diverse places for kids to learn and teachers to teach, the perspectives of all sharpen the saws of everyone in the room.”

In this episode, we unpack the current state of diversity in STEM fields. We also dig into possible strategies and approaches for increasing equity and participation in these programs.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Equity is not just about whether classes are available, but also about how those classes are taught, how students are recruited, and how the classroom culture supports diverse learners and promotes retention.

From the K–12 Computer Science Framework

Filling the Empty Chairs

“It’s about who is missing in the chairs,” says our guest, Cari Warnock. “So for me, it is truly wall-to-wall equity, access, and opportunity for all.” She adds, “We can offer lots of things, but we have to see who’s missing from the chairs.”

As we discuss in this podcast episode, providing classes and STEM opportunities is only part of the solution. If we continue to offer programs and do not change who we design and promote these courses for, we will continue to end up with the same enrollment results: a lack of diverse student participants. We need to go further and ground these programs in an equity framework, find out what appeals to diverse populations of students, recruit students from those populations, find teachers and mentors from diverse backgrounds, and then support all students throughout the program. Here are a few highlights from this episode:

  • Missing the E in STEM: A lot of research about STEM magnet schools points out that we are often missing the E in STEM programs. Much of this is likely due to the fact that many teachers don’t feel equipped to teach engineering. Cari suggests that teachers should lean on the subject matter they know best and use that content to “anchor the E” in STEM. Teachers can use this content to support an engineering process. After all, says Cari, “You don’t have an engineer to make a rocket without a designer.”
  • Learning Through Diversity: Cari has had the opportunity to work with STEM programs throughout the world. She reflects on the power of these experiences, saying, “The thing that always touches me the most is when students in one country get to learn from someone else, somewhere else—who lives a different way, who has a different educational system, who . . . their life is just completely different. And so what touches me is when those teachers connect, and when those students connect, and those district champions connect with each other, and we all learn something.”
  • Improving Diversity in STEM: “I think sometimes STEM doesn’t create equity,” admits Cari. Despite more schools offering STEM classes, “We have kids missing from seats.” In fact, data continues to point to a lack of diversity in these programs.
  • Start Early: “We really need our students to be critically thinking and solving those problems together as young as preK,” says Cari.
  • Start With an Equity Framework: Before deciding what program to offer, choose an equity framework. There are many frameworks freely available online. The key is to find a framework that centers on equity and that also fits your local situation. Cari advises, “Find one where equity is the foundation of the house you’re building, not a word on a page that sits on a shelf in a plan. But equity is actually serving as a foundation to your school board, or your schools, or the club you’re creating.”
  • The Importance of Mentors: “Mentors are so vital to our students,” says Cari. “If they can see it, they can be it.” It’s important to find mentors who look like our students. One solution is to lean on community and industry partners. Many times, these groups are willing to contribute volunteers to support this goal.
  • Marketing Is Key: It’s not enough to build a program; we need to also market effectively to diverse groups of students in order to draw them in. We need to ask what the students want and what will appeal to them. We also need to identify teacher champions who can effectively lead the cause. Many times, students enroll in a class because of the teacher. Additionally, administration needs to identify this as a goal, so the program gets attention in school media.
  • Getting Started: One key is to get to know your students and identify their wants and needs. You also need to identify both gaps and strengths so that you can build a program around those. Identify teachers who can be “gap fillers,” and then build both a program and a campaign to attract diverse groups of students.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • How does your school or district currently support STEM opportunities for students?
  • In what ways is the E missing from STEM in your school or district?
  • What are the benefits of having a diverse population of students in your classroom?
  • How diverse are your student populations in your STEM classes?
  • How might you improve diversity in STEM classes?
  • Why is an equity framework important?
  • What framework might you use?
  • How might you increase mentorship opportunities in your school or district?
  • How might you improve marketing campaigns for STEM classes?
  • What are your next steps in either developing or promoting STEM programs to increase the diversity of learners in those programs?