The Key to STEM Equity is Democratic Teaching

The growth in STEM jobs has the potential to lift up underserved communities, but to teach students the skills they need, educators must model true collaboration. 

By Kelly Houston

In the next decade, the number of jobs in STEM fields is projected to grow 10.5%, with median annual wages nearly double those of non-STEM careers. This stability—this wealth—has the potential to lift up underserved communities in an unprecedented way. But in order to access it, low-income students and students of color will have to overcome some major challenges. For the most part, these are challenges that the individual students have exactly zero control over; things like: will they even have teachers to teach them STEM subjects? Schools that are in the top quartile of serving students of color see a 90% higher turnover rate among math and science teachers than the quartile of schools serving the most white students. At Title I schools, turnover rates for math and science teachers are nearly 70% higher than at non-Title I schools. 

So why aren’t there more qualified teachers in these schools?

Lack of PD, Lack of Resources

A lack of ongoing professional development and isolation from colleagues teaching similar subjects has many negative implications, particularly for teacher retention. An inability to collaborate with fellow teachers is a major factor in job satisfaction, especially among STEM teachers. 

Another major factor in job satisfaction is having the tools to do your job. STEM teachers often have to scramble to find resources for their classrooms. This is an issue for teachers in general, but it is heightened in STEM classrooms, where experiments, design challenges, and other hands-on learning opportunities require supplies that get used up and need to be purchased over and over again. This challenge is not evenly distributed among districts: the lack of funding is more severe in rural and urban areas, where the percentage of secondary science teachers who report inadequate funding is 73 and 78 percent, respectively. Suburban districts are better off, but still, 63 percent of suburban teachers report inadequate funding for STEM.

So how can we, the science and math teachers, overcome these obstacles?

Embracing a Democratic STEM Teaching Framework

In the beginning of my career as a teacher, I thought my job was to teach all aspects of science. When students struggled I would comfort myself by maintaining an unhealthy narrative that “they didn’t come to class” or “they didn’t do their homework” so it wasn’t my fault if they weren’t ”getting it.” But in fact it was me who wasn’t “getting it.” I grew up in a suburban white community and I needed to take the time to understand the wider system I was working in. I realized my job was bigger than just teaching science. 

As a third-year teacher, I was starving for the support of fellow STEM teachers, so I was delighted to be accepted as a STEM Ed Innovators fellow. Connecting with a supportive group of educators who were experiencing the same challenges gave me the sense of community I was desperately missing. We were all learners and now we had a safe space in which to share our common struggles, ideas, failures and successes. 

Gradually I realized that teaching is not just providing information to students to prepare them for state exams. The goal of teaching is to build relationships and establish a positive classroom culture—and that does not mean creating a hierarchy. Every member of the class plays a key role in the success of the classroom community. 

This introduction to a democratic STEM teaching framework empowered me to welcome feedback from my students and create a more equitable learning space. Beyond centering my teaching on developing their ability to think about STEM critically, I focused on elevating my students’ voices and sharing authority.

My students became co-designers and co-creators of their own education. Their funds of knowledge and interests shaped the classroom environment and curriculum choices. It wasn’t until I adopted this approach that teaching became fun. Suddenly I was in constant conversation with my students, asking their opinions about what was working or not working for them in class. Together, we created a classroom where everyone felt included and important—and where my students could see how science was relevant to their lives, their community, and their future. 

Modeling Democratic Teaching 

I am now 18 years into my teaching career, teaching at an International Baccalaureate School. The curriculum is rigid, but I still teach democratically. We create space for open discussions rooted in shared classroom agreements, and we co-create rubrics and decide which topics we want to lean more heavily into. Students also have choices in how they demonstrate their mastery. I use surveys to check on their social-emotional levels and to understand what learning experiences are working or not working.

I try to model this type of teaching for my colleagues and their students. I encourage those who are interested to start by building trusting, welcoming, genuine relationships with students. If students complain that a class is boring, I encourage them to find ways to advocate for their needs with their teacher. How will a teacher know what is working or not working if you don’t tell them? 

At our school, teachers have the opportunity to lead various professional developments on our in-service days. I choose workshops that align with my beliefs in a democratic classroom. I look for opportunities outside of my school, including attending conferences, listening to podcasts, and collaborating with colleagues. Ten years after I was a first-year fellow, I continue to work with STEM Ed Innovators, now as a director of operations, co-designing and co-facilitating a series of 75-minute workshops open to STEM teachers. 

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to educate underserved students—we are up against so much. But there is power, for us and for our students, when we start seeing them as the future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians that they could be.

Kelly Houston began her teaching career in the Peace Corps serving in Malawi Africa and taught for ten years in Brooklyn, NY before moving to Cape Cod, MA where she teaches Biology at an International Baccalaureate School. During her career she has served as a curriculum coach, team leader, and science department chair. Currently she is a mentor fellow in the STEM Ed Innovators Program, where she also serves as the Director of Operations. She can be reached at [email protected].

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