How Could Inclusion and Engagement Affect Learners’ Pursuit in STEM?

By: Inas Essa

What makes us like some places and willing to visit them many times but feel estranged from others is the feeling of belonging that some spaces provide while others lack. Schools and learning environments are no exception; if a learning space engages its visitors, makes them feel welcomed and that they belong to it, better results would be achieved. Yet, how could this be that important to the enrichment of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields?

Learning Environment Climate

Previous research has indicated how school climate is important for shaping educational outcomes. When students have a more positive school climate, they experience a wide range of positive outcomes, including positive development, reduced risky behaviors, increased health outcomes, and higher academic achievement and graduation rates. Additionally, the more supportive the learning environment climate is the more positive orientation toward STEM becomes.

However, STEM climates are not always supportive, which could lead promising participants who feel marginalized to leave STEM pursuits at high rates. That is what led researchers of a recent study from North Carolina State University to examine the link between a sense of belonging, inclusivity, and engagement in STEM.

Features of Supportive and Unsupportive Learning Environments

Supportive learning environments need to be created:

  • Establish appropriate sociocultural norms to work effectively and respectfully with each other;
  • Provide experiences that unite customary practices, such as hosting a cultural event;
  • Honor students’ prior knowledge and experiences;
  • Provide interesting and challenging learning activities/experiences;
  • Model and coach effective and productive practices;
  • Respect the languages of the students, such as seeking translations of some of the key concepts into students’ languages.

On the other hand, try to avoid:

  • Deepening the differences in the language used by learners by stressing on how different they are in a negative way.
  • Dwelling on a teaching method that suits only a few of them, not all, just because it is widely used.


Promoting STEM Education

The researchers explained how a sense of belonging and inclusivity in school classes help promote STEM education, in addition to making students feel capable of working on STEM subjects even outside these environments. That sense of belonging makes them more eager to engage in the classroom, which is also related to more motivation. Moreover, they feel more capable of using such knowledge learned from STEM fields in solving other issues.

However, when they lack this feeling of belonging and face prejudicial treatment, this acts as a barrier to persistence in STEM fields. The authors indicate that fostering engagement could be achievable through building more inclusive classrooms in settings and treatment.

Fostering Engagement in Learning Environments

The following tips would help in making the learning environment more engaging and suitable for learners from different backgrounds:

  1. Build positive relationships with students to better know what they need and like or dislike in the learning environment; for example: use informal surveys.
  2. Provide activities for each Level since learners can differ in their learning levels. Working with learners who learn at high speed while leaving behind slow learners would make them feel marginalized and generate negative consequences. Therefore, educators should embrace the fact that students learn at different levels and act on that.
  3. Provide opportunities for collaborative learning and allow support. Interactive learning is the best way to create a sense of inclusivity. You can group learners with like-abilities or mixed-abilities depending on the activity you intend to carry out.


Evaluating the Role of Inclusivity

In the recent study, researchers wanted to evaluate how inclusivity, besides other factors, could affect learning and pursuing careers in STEM. "We need workers in the STEM workforce, and we know that high school is when interest in STEM subjects declines for many students. We launched this study because we wanted to evaluate the role inclusivity may play in how students view STEM," says Kelly Lynn Mulvey, first author of the paper and an associate professor of psychology at NC State.

The inclusivity scientists wanted to investigate refers to the extent to which students feel a classroom is welcoming to different genders and ethnic groups. In an in-depth survey the researchers used, they asked students about several matters to determine to what extent feeling welcomed and supported or not affect their willingness to pursue study or career in STEM.

For example, students were asked:

  • How inclusive do they feel their STEM classrooms were?
  • To what extent did STEM teachers treat them unfairly?
  • To what extent do they feel like they personally belonged in their STEM classes?

Students were also asked about the extent to which they felt engaged with their STEM classes, and the extent to which they felt they could help solve real-world STEM problems in their communities, such as lacking access to recycling facilities.


Less Fairness, Less Engagement

Participants in the study were from different backgrounds and origins: 34.2% of study participants were White/European-American; 33.4% were Black/African-American; 10.5% were Latin; 13.4% as biracial or other; and 8.5% of participants chose not to report their race. 

"Most students felt their classrooms were inclusive, and that teachers treated them fairly," Mulvey says. "However, the further students had progressed through high school, the less likely they were to view their STEM classrooms as inclusive, and the more likely they were to perceive unfair treatment from their teachers. That was true regardless of race and gender."

Findings also indicate that the less fair a student felt their teacher was, the more likely they were to avoid engaging in the class. "Similarly, students who felt classrooms were inclusive were more likely to feel that they belonged, increasing both their classroom engagement and their sense of being empowered to address STEM issues in their communities," Mulvey says.

"In practical terms, this study highlights the fact that feeling like you belong matters. The way to promote belonging is to make kids feel like their classrooms are inclusive. For example, teachers can take steps to make sure all students feel involved and discuss scientists from backgrounds that reflect the backgrounds of the students.” More study is under way to identify and develop additional ways to support students.

In a nutshell, school engagement is crucial in capturing one's behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and social experiences at school. Schools and learning spaces have important roles in creating inclusive communities where students, staff, and families feel welcomed and supported, as well as creating opportunities for youth to gain experience to be implemented in their daily life, outside these spaces.