Canadian Science Policy Fellows' Corner: Where is the evidence on achieving diversity in STEM education?
This year’s Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) had the first symposium on “Achieving Diversity in STEM, Advancing Innovation,” with other sessions having a similar underlying theme. Moderated by Dorothy Byers and Imogen Coe, the panelists of the symposium primarily discussed the need for achieving diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. They covered the roles of supportive mentoring, of working in teams at a young age, of teaching and learning both hard and soft skills, and of strengthening the confidence of teachers in delivering STEM subjects. The panelists only briefly touched upon how arts can be important in STEM education, the topic of which perhaps earns itself another blog piece on its own.
It was unique to hear about the example of FIRST Robotics Canada as a way of getting diverse young students to recognize their own expertise and their critical roles in a team during exciting robotics competitions. Whatever their undiscovered talent may be, these opportunities catalyze students’ experiential learning and their understanding of how they could each contribute uniquely to a team. In past years, there have been improvements in Canada in raising awareness of diversity in STEM education, and the CSPC panelists discussed efforts such as those shown by Actua and Let’s Talk Science. However, given the evidence-based nature of the conference, the factual numbers showing the gender ratio, the representation of the types of diversity groups, and their geographical locations were somewhat lacking.
There are also examples of many other initiatives, beyond the small handful of examples mentioned during CSPC, which perhaps is more reflective of the regionalized nature of these efforts to raise diversity awareness in STEM education. For instance, students at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta deliver a program, DiscoverE, to offer interactive, hands-on events to more than 27,000 youth per year in school communities across northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
While these initiatives are laudable, we need to move beyond this starting point and to talk about national strategies that will invoke further changes, as well as making sure there is ongoing critical evaluation of those efforts with robust evidence. For example, when comparing the different early intervention approaches, what is the number of and gender ratios of students electing STEM courses later on in their education? At what stages, if any, are there bottlenecks? Furthermore, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, are these initiatives easily found on an open-access centralized database?
Amongst the over five million students in public elementary and secondary schools across Canada last reported by Statistics Canada in 2013, how many students do these existing intervention approaches actually reach? How representative of diversity groups are they?
Given that 19 percent (nearly one-fifth) of Canada’s population resides in rural areas according to the 2011 Census, how different are their access to, and the quality of, STEM opportunities, compared to those in or close to city centres? Although the discussion panel mentioned parts of these aspects, we can definitely do more by seeking to monitor in longer-terms and to critically analyze measurable outcomes, especially where results may not be immediate.
In the best interest of Canadians, those tasked with such grand initiatives should be held accountable for generating productive changes, rather than simply performing lip service. The CSPC panelists identified ongoing efforts to increase awareness for STEM diversity and also suggested, for example, giving awards to those who recognize and are committed to women representation in science.
Perhaps instead of giving out treats to commend people for recognizing the need for gender parity and diversity, we should assess how we fundamentally view this and ask ourselves why achieving diversity is not already second nature to us.
This blog post was contributed to Mitacs. The views or opinions expressed within belong solely to the author and do not represent those of Mitacs or the institutions or organizations that the author may be associated with.
The Canadian Science Policy Fellowship is made possible thanks to Professor Sarah Otto, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia; participating federal agencies and departments; the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy; and Mitacs’ Science Policy Fellowship Advisory Council.