Anybody who has committed their life to providing education in urban areas will know exactly how deep the struggles can go. It’s not a case of urban-based kids not wanting to take their education seriously — they’re hungry to learn, to excel, and to succeed. However, they learn from an early age that the cards are stacked against them; they look around every day and see that the world is set up for kids who benefit from advantages they have never had.
Particularly when it comes to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) subjects, students living in urban areas tend to be discouraged in their pursuits. From the knowledge that entering into STEAM fields often requires prohibitively expensive schooling, to the simple fact that minority students continue to face significant biases that affect their ability to get a full education. Society places needless additional obstacles in the path of potentially great minds.
This kind of destructive systemic social Darwinism is not something that can be solved overnight, but it certainly requires each and every actor in urban education to examine their personal biases. There are also simple, practical steps we can take to break down some of the barriers to urban STEAM learning. At the very least, it is in our power to expand programs in inner-city schools, and discover new ways to make it clear to students that these subjects are not just accessible to them, but that they can make a significant contribution to these fields in the future.
Making STEAM Subjects More Relevant
Students in urban areas have too often been victims of negative messaging; teachers downplaying their scientific and mathematical ability to the point they’re discouraged from participating in these fields. It can also be a struggle to see themselves in STEAM roles because there seems to be too few prominent role models in scientific and engineering fields who reflect their own cultural background. It’s not that they don’t exist, they just don’t tend to get the same level of mainstream press exposure as others in their field might.
A good start is to demonstrate that vital discoveries and ingenious solutions have been and continue to be made by the efforts of minorities. Help them to see themselves as a potential influential tech entrepreneur, computer engineer, medical researcher by showing them the very real personalities behind these professions. Invite visitors into the classroom, or reach out and arrange Skype conferences. Understanding what is possible starts with talking to the people who have achieved wonders and finding out the reality of how they were achieved.
Research engineering and science-based projects that have had a significant impact on the local area. Demonstrate how their individual actions can help improve the environment of the world they’re inheriting. Impress upon students that these fields are not just answering expansive questions about the universe, but can also significantly improve the lives of those they are closest to. Understand how you can make the STEAM subject matter accurately reflect the issues they face, and how they can have a hand in solving those.
Making Learning Enjoyable
From an early age, kids tend to develop the impression that because STEAM subjects can be complex, they are therefore boring. As an educator, one of the most useful routes around this is to demonstrate that the subjects open up fascinating, beautiful possibilities. From a day-to-day perspective, many urban students aren’t exposed to the wonders of the natural world.
Science subjects are more effectively taught when you can take kids out of the classroom and show them the diversity of nature. While access to regular field trips may be limited, these can be supported by introducing nature documentaries to the classroom. Students can also be encouraged to download free STEAM-related apps to their devices such as Sky View, which displays the paths of objects in the sky, pinpoints stars and planets, and details the current location of the ISS.
There’s also a movement to introduce students to STEAM subjects by utilizing hip hop. The #HipHopEd movement began as weekly Twitter-based chats to discover new ways to engage students in this way, and has grown to produce some effective and exciting projects. These include working with prominent artists to encourage kids to create raps themed around the sciences, as well as providing educators with resources to effectively hybridize education and urban culture.
The Practicalities of STEAM Education in Urban Schools
It’s all well and good to acknowledge the struggles that face urban students when it comes to their success in STEAM, but sometimes finding practical solutions as an educator can be a struggle in itself. Funding for educators has reached lows which have caused significant setbacks, with many teachers resorting to purchasing essential materials themselves. It puts educators in an untenable position, and places their students at an unfair disadvantage.
It’s worth knowing that there are a variety of grant options available for those teachers who are able to spare the time to apply. However, it may also be more practical to seek partnerships with local STEAM-centric companies. Whether this is providing equipment such as tablets and scientific instrumentation, sponsoring field trips, or even collaborating with older students on projects, you’ll find the industries are often keen to encourage the rising generation of innovators in their fields.
It’s also important to guide students engaged in STEAM activities on how to navigate furthering their education after high school. Too many urban students are discouraged from a university education because it appears inaccessible to them. Introduce them to the resources available, but go further whenever you can. Assist them in understanding what types of qualifications are necessary for their intended career path, which majors are helpful and which are superfluous, and introduce them to the routes taken by prominent members of their intended field whom they may find inspiring.
There is a distinct shortage of urban and minority community members entering into scientific fields. NACME recently reported that minorities in engineering jobs have risen to 12%, but that’s still a concerning imbalance. It’s in our best interest as a species to encourage diversity across all industries, because we are desperately in need of a diversity of ideas. We need to start this encouragement as early as possible and invite kids in urban areas to discover the wonder and beauty of STEAM subjects.