To meet the growing demand for science, technology, engineering (STEM) professionals, we need to prepare a broader cadre of students prepared to enter these fields. This has in turn increased the focus on inclusion and diversity in the STEM pipeline. How can educational institutions help underrepresented minority students persist, matriculate, and succeed in STEM related disciplines? I will draw on my personal experience as well as the stories of other high achieving mathematics students in order to provide strategies that will help support all students successfully navigate the mathematics pipeline.
I believe we will have to think differently about how students move through the mathematics pipeline. Data suggests that this pipeline is leaky because students leave mathematics at all levels and only a “select” group of students are allowed to take higher level mathematics classes. This is especially true of underrepresented groups. Even those historically marginalized students who are selected to participate in mathematics are often given subtle and not so subtle messages that they do not belong. Their feeling of not belonging often translates to low performance, or simply dropping out of mathematics altogether by pursuing disciplines that don’t require mathematics.
My own story can help illuminate how we can better support these students. After graduating from 6th grade, I was placed in a “low” track — I took the most basic math class offered. At some point a teacher realized that I was “misplaced,” so I was moved to a gifted and talented class (GT) in the 8th grade. There my mathematics teacher, Ms. Mitchell, exposed us to challenging problems and believed in my ability to do the work, even though I was a transplant from a lower track. She was never afraid to give us problems that we had never seen before, and expected us to be able to engage in mathematical ideas and concepts that would seem “too much” for 8th grade inner city students. She would allow us to work through these complex problems with little guidance from her, and it was clear to us that she knew we could figure them out. Members of the class were encouraged to share their solutions even if they were not completely correct, and she would masterfully ask questions to help advance our own thinking. As we struggled through these problems, she would say to us, “you are brilliant!” And I really believed her, which made me continue to work and in many cases solve these problems.
It was clear to me that her goal was not for us to simply get the right answer; she wanted us to push our thinking and see ourselves as sophisticated mathematical thinkers. I eventually graduated middle school with honors and in high school continued to take advanced mathematics courses all the way through calculus. Eventually I obtained a BS, MA in mathematics and a PhD in mathematics education.
Developing a Positive Mathematics Identity through Empowering Mathematics Experiences
My experience in 8th grade made me see myself as an empowered learner of mathematics, forever altering my life trajectory. I knew I “belonged” in the mathematics community and developed a positive identity as a mathematics learner and scholar. I have found this to be true for other students who successfully persist in mathematics. The key is to create learning environments that foster this identity for all students, specifically for underrepresented groups.
Serve as Agents of Change in the Mathematics Pipeline
Several scholars have argued that mathematics serves as a gatekeeper that allows students to pursue STEM-related disciplines and careers. We must understand our role as mathematics gatekeepers and become reflective practitioners who are willing to rethink what we do, how we do it, and the impact practices have on students. We cannot afford to stay rigid in our thinking about what it means to do mathematics, nor can we stay stuck in outdated paradigms regarding how it is best taught.
We also need to raise our awareness of hidden ways that mathematics privileges some students while marginalizing others. For example, in mathematics we value particular learning styles and ways of knowing that reflect a Eurocentric worldview. Students who think in logical, linear ways are often rewarded for being “smart,” while students who demonstrate their understanding through conversation and stories are often labeled as “not math people,” and are therefore relegated to lower mathematics classes or disregarded all together. We know from research that many Black and Latino students do not only demonstrate their knowledge in linear ways and can therefore be marginalized in mathematics classes. So we must incorporate various strategies in our teaching that align with various cultural learning styles.
We must understand the hidden power of mathematics and critique the ways we select students to participate in mathematics because mathematics has been viewed as elitist and only those who are considered “the best and the brightest” are allowed to participate in higher-level courses. Students are selected into accelerated programs based on standardized assessments and teacher recommendations. However, many students and parents don’t even know these selection criteria, or don’t have the sufficient social and cultural capital to advocate for their children in ways that will have them be one of the chosen ones. To address this problem, teachers may have to encourage and advocate for these students to continue taking advanced mathematics courses. In my own story, a teacher served as an agent of change by advocating that I be placed in a GT program. In my own research on what makes students successful in mathematics, key people who helped them navigate the mathematics education terrain are essential.
These are just a few first steps that will give all students the chance to achieve and persist in mathematics. Having students see themselves as viable mathematics learners and having gatekeepers deliberately shepherd them through the pipeline will go a long way towards realizing the vision of diversity and inclusion that we all know will be beneficial to our students, our schools, and the global society.