An Experiment in STEM Equity

I could see the other half of the room shifting in their seats. Some had already blown the exercise off, others were visibly concerned that they weren't picking up what they needed the way that the other half of the room was.
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Recently, at a meeting for the Oregon Girls Collaborative project, I decided to try something new. When giving my speech on equity, I decided to skip the charts and graphs, and give the audience a truly immersive experience.

Before my session, I had an assistant help me hand out flyers to everyone. She took one side of the room and I took the other, explaining to the guests that this sheet would provide them with valuable background for the activity that we were about to do, and they should read over it very carefully.

When I got to the front of the room, I reiterated that these sheets would be considered their "background" for the next activity, and they had exactly three minutes to look them over before we took a very important (and very public) quiz.

"The results of this will determine the future of education." I said, gesturing with the grand hyperbole. "I want you all to try your hardest to answer quickly, and since it's so important, I'll even let you refer back to your sheet for each question."

The crowd looked a little wary, though I could tell that some were loving the challenge and were ready to go.

With a very earnest face, I began, "Which direction does electricity flow in a simple circuit?"

The group glanced over their papers, and in less than a second, nearly half of the group raised their hand, answering that it flowed from the negative terminal toward the positive terminal.

"Okay," I chided, "that was only about half of you. Let's see if we can all bring it this time." Posturing with my quiz sheet, I asked, "On what side of a AA battery is the cathode?"

Again, about half of the group was able to respond, "The positive side." Interestingly, it was roughly the same half.

"Good job, those of you who answered. To the rest of you, can you please take this more seriously? These scores affect more than just you right here and now. This is a very important quiz."

I could see the other half of the room shifting in their seats. Some had already blown the exercise off, others were visibly concerned that they weren't picking up what they needed the way that the other half of the room was.

"Now," I began, "What is it called when the positive and negative wires cross before they reach the intended meeting point?"

This time, no more than half the room raised their hand, but they provided the answer that I was looking for. "It's a short circuit."

Incredibly, the correct answer came from the same side of the room! I could see the students from the other side looking around self-consciously while the side of the room containing the "honor students" sat smugly in their seats. I wanted to chastise the poorly performing side further, but my nature wouldn't let the torture continue. I couldn't keep a straight face any longer.

"Would you all please hold up your background resource?"Gasps and giggles filled the room as the two halves of the room realized that they were working from different backgrounds! It was enough to give you chills. The relief was palpable.

While one side had received a very helpful sheet on all things circuits, the other side of the room had been given a background on binary encoding.

"Do you get what happened here? I was teaching my class as if you all came to me with the same background, when in reality, your backgrounds were very different. How do you think this relates to the way we approach teaching every day?"

In the half hour that followed, we talked about the idea that not all students learn in the same way, and that some children are given more resources outside of class to pull from. We talked about how the half of the class that was getting everything right were feeling very self-assured and comfortable, while the half that couldn't answer the questions were starting to get very real feelings of anxiety and inferiority... even though the entire audience was made up of very successful, very intelligent people.

"How do you think you would have felt about your abilities in STEM if that quiz was the last impression that I had left you with?" I asked the weak performers. They verified that they would not have felt very confident, and they would have viewed themselves as "less talented" than the other half of the room, even though they had background knowledge that was every bit as technical and difficult as the half that excelled. Their group just hadn't been given the opportunity to showcase their knowledge in the same way.

So, how does this exercise relate to equity in STEM? I've been thinking about this for a while, so I could draw a thousand comparisons, but here is my favorite: Students who excel in STEM subjects will often continue to excel in STEM subjects, leading others to believe that they themselves are not talented or even capable. Instead of assuming that the entire class has the foundation that it needs to succeed, provide all students with an area of extra resources where they can go to catch up on stuff that they may have missed. This could be links to YouTube videos or printouts that are sitting in the corner of the room. Put aside that old feeling that it's okay to allow something that students missed in the past to continue haunting them in the future. Most importantly, if you know that a troubled student shines in a certain area, give them an opportunity and a spotlight.

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