STEAM, de Trojan Horse for Making ”Inclusivity”


by Christa Flores -

An Argument for STEAM as the Trojan Horse for ”Making” (Part 2)

STEAM, de Trojan Horse for Making ”Inclusivity”

by C. Flores and P. Benfield


Many years ago when one of us (Christa) was looking at undergraduate programs in anthropology and paleontology, a UC Berkeley graduate student, who happened to be white and male, snickered at the suggestion that it would be “fun” to work on a campus with so many fields of science to learn from. “Its way too competitive for collaboration,” he scoffed, half disgusted, half proud to be surviving in such an environment. As a budding anthropologist, I knew humans for their ability to collaborate. Forming alliances to solve problems was a key survival strategy for early humans.  Female humans, especially, have enjoyed evolutionarily success solving hard problems in this manner (Fukuyama), so that grad student's description of how science was done really struck a chord. 

Fast forward to the year 2015, and growing concern has mounted for attracting females and minorities to the STEM fields. Counterbalancing past bias (by creating “unfair” advantages) to bridge the gap in college and STEM fields, continues to be a messy road, however. Once attending top STEM schools, women still face constant doubts about whether they belong in their programs. Competitive language from peers such as “they (MIT) are turning away qualified applicants in favor of less qualified female applicants," creates an environment of doubt (Selvage) and does little to attract those to STEM already feeling less armed to compete.  

Toy companies riding the wave of interest to close the gender gap in STEM have seen some success in sales, but simply adding storylines, and product lines which “feature girls in settings including a shopping mall, a beach house, and a pet salon” feel bereft of the kind of substantive changed needed. Getting more women to participate in the creation, versus consumption of their lives, through STEM careers is a conversation that can be easily lost in arguments for economic success. Take the “Case for Gender Equality” statement put out by the World Economic Forum for the 2014 Global Gender Gap Index which says: The “consumer case”, “talent case” and the “diversity case” are all reflected in the findings around a growing business case for gender diversity. As women become more economically independent, they also become more significant consumers of goods and services (7). I think it is safe to say, that making STEM more incllusive or closing the gender gap, can not be solved by consumerism at all. How might we address the topic in our own classrooms? 

Sylvia Martinez links the importance, as well as challenge, of using self-directed learning environments to support more outsiders, such as girls, in engineering. She also points out that girls, on average, will interact with self-direction differently than boys. This looks like girls tending towards pleasing the teacher (or from my experience their friends or teammates) and avoiding conflict over scarce resources (that includes the teacher’s attention). “Teachers need to remember that their suggestions carry a great amount of weight. To counter this and encourage self-directed learning, teachers need to train themselves to offer neutral, yet encouraging support for students to think outside the box,” says Martinez.  Furthermore girls need to be given strategically “unfair” advantages by being invited by the adult to learn technology first, leading to leadership roles in the classroom as mentors.

 Super Stoked, this high skilled young lady made her first vintage re-design in the iLab’s textiles section!

Blikstein reminds us to invite access by creating Gender Neutral Learning Spaces: Super Stoked, this high skilled young lady made her first vintage re-design in the iLab’s textiles section!

More hope for closing the gap between STEM interest and underserved populations, can be seen in the work of the non profit Maker Education Initiatives in schools. Due to their extensive work with public schools, the target audience for Maker Education is often low income or minority students. In a news article targeting latino families describing the role of creativity and how traditional schools fail to teach or preserve it, Maker Education was mentioned as a potential cure. In the article Nirvan Mullick, a U.S. documentary filmmaker and founder of the Imagination Foundation says the emergence of these new educational initiatives "shows we're going through a period of transition, of changes in which we're experimenting and re-imagining the way in which young people learn.”  

Similar efforts to combine issues of gender and income, can be seen by the fact that over 50% of graduating engineering students are female at Harvey Mudd College. Why? “Simple,” says president Maria Klawe, the first female president of Harvey Mudd, in this Huffington Post article. Female students are thriving in newly designed environments for collaboration and creative team projects. Avoiding lecturing helps too, notes Klawe, that way you avoid only two or three students dominating the dialog.  Most importantly Klawe adds, “What we see happen when we (change teaching styles) is that it not only increases the number of women in those classes, it also increases the number of students of color and others who don't often feel like the dominant group in engineering or computer science.” Good learning environments support more students period.

If STEM is experiencing a new pushback for its competitive nature, as well as a peeling back of the layers of authority coded by the “white coat,” then what does STEAM (insert MakerEd if you will) offer this conversation about change (Erickson, et. al.)?

If STEM is still tied to marketability, and the Arts are stereotypically not marketable, then what can be the result of such a hybrid between the Arts and STEM and Making?

As far as inclusivity, when it comes to using STEAM as an argument for Making in schools, we get to decide and define for ourselves exactly what “A“ means. We can tailor it to match the skills, interests, and passions of our students. “A” could be someone’s cultural heritage, their native language, customs, or gender identity. It also increases the umbrella of interested students, who, for a variety of reasons (low self-esteem, fear of looking smart and or nerdy and so forth) might be willing to participate in making activities because they can express themselves in a way that connects with them. The “A” in STEAM is the wild card that gives a voice to our students in ways that a metric driven focus on STEM can not. That voice, can and should be the seed of inclusivity at schools.  

We like white coats too, in a gender neutral (outside) classroom!


Works Cited

  1. Blikstein, Paulo (Oct 24, 2014) “I Have Guts To” FabLearn 2014 Opening Keynote. Stanford University.
  2. Bouza, Tereasa (November 26, 2014) “Initiatives seek to tap into children's creativity” Fox News Latino Link:
  3. Erickson, F., Kneller, George F. (Nov 2002) “Comment: Culture, Rigor, and Science in Educational Research” EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER vol. 31 no. 8 21-24
  4. Fukuyama, Francis (Sep. - Oct., 1998) “Women and the Evolution of World Politics” Foreign Affairs Vol. 77, No. 5, Published by: Council on Foreign Relations
  5. Issacson, Betsy (July 2014) “Why Most Of This College's Engineering Students Are Women” Huffington Post
  6. Martinez, Sylvia (November 3, 2014) “WHAT A GIRL WANTS: SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING, TECHNOLOGY, AND GENDER” blog from
  7. Selvage, Jennifer (Novenber 2014) “Pushing Women and People of Color Out of Science Before We Go In” Huffington Post Blog
  8. The Global Gender Gap Index 2014: The Case for Gender Equality (2014) World Economic Forum