Friday, November 15, 2013

The SNAP Challenge in STEM Education

I am taking the SNAP Challenge this week – pledging to live on the average per person SNAP benefit for my state (not a state, actually -- DC), which comes to $32.14 per week. I do this in part because I work in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education, and I want to raise awareness in this community about the effects of racial and economic inequality on minority and low income student access to STEM education and STEM careers. 

For decades well-intended STEM educators have sincerely wondered why the participation numbers for minorities have been so low and moved so little. We are just beginning to ask the same questions about socioeconomic status and the under-representation of poor students in STEM at the baccalaureate level and higher. At the same time, effects of poverty in K-12 education are well known; a recent article in the Washington Post  documents how poor children have become the majority in schools in the South and in the West, and how we need to shift our focus from No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top to really meeting students' needs. One of those needs, increasingly, is hunger. The data are staggering. With 15 percent of the country living below the poverty line, 50 million Americans, or 1 in 6, is food insecure – meaning they do not know where their next meal is coming from at some point during the year.  Nearly 1 in 4 children lives in a food insecure family, and more than a quarter of children under age 5 live in poverty.

These are averages across the population. Within the African American community, 38.8 percent of children under age 18 and 42.7 percent of children under age 5 live below the poverty line. A quarter of African American households and just under a quarter of Latino households are food insecure, compared to about 1 in 10 Caucasian households.  1 in 3 American Indian children are food insecure. The STEM meritocracy pretends this is of no consequence. With double or triple poverty and food insecurity rates in Black, Latino, and Native American communities compared with non-Hispanic whites, we must begin to imagine differently the challenges of minority participation in STEM, develop a deeper understanding of the life contexts of 25-40% of the students we seek to welcome from under-represented groups, and incorporate into our strategies an analysis of how social inequality is reproduced within the education system to limit access to STEM fields and other pathways to economic security.

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