The importance of seeing ourselves in different roles or careers is paramount because a student will subconsciously limit their abilities simply because they do not see other people that look like themselves doing a job or working in a career they are interested in. My colleague, Christy Kuehn, discussed this idea a few weeks ago in her blog posts about the concept of “windows and mirrors.” Her main takeaway is that representation matters; having role models that look like you matter. I am speaking from this experience as a self-proclaimed “science nerd” because this concept is especially important with regards to representation in STEM. My parents were clear in their messaging when I was a kid: I could do any job I wanted, with the subtle caveat that I had to go to college, which at that time was totally fine with me because I was interested in a career in science. As a child, it was important for me to see other women doing jobs that I had an interest in. I was given opportunities to explore my interests regardless of my gender or abilities. I was fortunate enough to have parents who provided those “mirrors” to me.
My mom was a respiratory therapist who also trained in giving cardiac stress tests. She shared her love of science through multiple, practical explanations of the body and how all of its magical machinery was connected. Not only that, she was and still is an avid gardener, with a love for nature and being outside. My mom was a mirror for me. I got my love of science from her–well, that and a family trip to SeaWorld back in the day. I was convinced at age 10 that I would be a marine biologist. And because I was stubborn enough to ignore where my strengths actually lie, I did indeed go to college to become a marine biologist without having a clear idea of what a marine biologist actually did in their day-to-day work. This is what I get for being a land-locked Illinoian and shows the importance of career readiness in schools that many of my fellow millennials missed out on. I was lucky enough to pivot to teaching and used my natural enthusiasm for the content to connect with my students.
My dad started his own business in machine tool repair so he not only creatively problem-solved everyday at work, he did it in many different scenarios with multiple variables that were constantly changing. We lovingly refer to my dad as “MacGyver” because he is the only person I know who can fix anything with the “right tool” even if that “tool” is a couple of toothpicks and some packaging tape. I am quite adept at seeing how parts interact to make a whole and enjoy the puzzle of figuring out how to make a system efficient. My dad never told me I couldn’t do what I was interested in because I was a “girl.” Most recently, he showed me how to electrically rewire and install a ceiling fan so that I could do it on my own the next time. Now, time will tell if I can actually do this project on my own, but either way, he gave me the confidence to try. As we talk about what equity is for our students, it is exactly that: having the same high level of expectation for every student. My parents always had high expectations of me, regardless of any societal norms around my career options or interests.
As educators, it is important to 1) provide STEM programming opportunities for all of our students and 2) promote these opportunities to female students and minority-identifying students. For example, providing an opportunity for all students to participate in a robotics class or club is important. However, look at the physical and educational makeup of a typical robotics student in your class. Are you seeing some similarities which already mirror the societal norms of a robotics engineer? If so, what can you do to change it so that more of your students who identify differently from the “robotics engineer norm” will want to engage because they see other students who look like them having a great time in your robotics class? How can we promote STEM career exploration for all students?
STEM or STEAM or STREAM (whatever your acronym preference is!), they all create space for the importance of how what we learn in the classroom is used and applied in the real world. Spoiler alert: this content isn’t used in a silo in the real world, even though we tend to teach it that way. The curriculum we expect our students to engage with and learn should translate into real-world applications and careers for ALL students of every gender, race, and ability. Displaying and discussing diverse individuals from all races, genders, and abilities within our content area and grade level gives students mirrors, and allows them to be more fully engaged. Students see themselves–that there is a place for them in this world.
Opportunities for Reflection
- What are the messages I am sending to the student I work with? How might I increase diverse representation in my classroom?
- Are there courses, extra-curriculars, and programs that provide windows and mirrors for my students in the STEM fields?