Fostering Inclusivity in STEM Teaching: Tips and Best Practices

Equality of access to and participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers paths has been a significant and well-documented social challenge worldwide during the past decades. STEM graduates can aid the development of a highly skilled technical workforce, enabling technological and scientific innovation and economic growth. There exists a global need to enhance students’ interest in STEM and support their success throughout their education, particularly by addressing current gender gaps and biases against underrepresented groups, and certain demographic barriers that limit their access and participation.

Several factors contribute to the equity gap in STEM education. For instance, socioeconomic disparities that limit access to resources, like technology and extracurricular STEM programs, hinder students from low-income backgrounds. Gender stereotypes representing STEM fields as male-dominated can also discourage girls from pursuing these subjects. Additionally, underrepresented minorities often encounter systemic barriers that restrict their involvement in STEM. The absence of diverse role models in STEM fields can impede students’ aspirations, while those with learning disabilities or who are non-native English speakers may not receive adequate support.

Breaking down these barriers opens doors for individuals from diverse backgrounds to explore their potential in STEM education. Inclusivity starts within the classroom, beginning from elementary education onward. It’s crucial to establish inclusive learning environments where every student feels respected, valued, and welcomed. Often overlooked is the responsibility of STEM teachers to cultivate an environment where every student has equal opportunities for academic success (Whittaker and Montgomery, 2014). Educators have a crucial role in fostering a supportive environment where students can freely express themselves and collaborate without the fear of being judged. For educators at all levels, recognizing implicit biases, adopting culturally responsive teaching methods, adopting positive attitudes toward students, and embracing a growth mindset are essential components of inclusive education.

Recognition of demographic gaps has led to policy initiatives aimed at broadening participation by students from historically underrepresented groups. Indeed, according to the National Science Foundation report, there has been an increase in the representation of women as well as underrepresented minorities (Hispanics or Latinos, Blacks or African Americans, and American Indians or Alaska Natives) working in STEM occupations over the past decade in the U.S. However, those groups —as well as people with disabilities— broadly remain underrepresented in STEM careers and jobs worldwide.

Working for more youth in science and technology is investing in a more diverse, inclusive, and innovative future. Although elementary school is a crucial stage to influence students’ interest in STEM (McClure et al., 2017), institutions of higher education must also guarantee that intellectual and social environments where all students have the opportunity to achieve academic success. Here we present five tips and best practices for fostering inclusivity in STEM teaching.

  1. Cultivate Inclusive Environment and Communication:

It is important to foster a positive and supportive classroom climate where all students feel valued and respected, encouraging open communication without penalizing opinions. In the study of Dost (2024), the students highlighted the significance of creating a supportive and welcoming atmosphere so they can feel a safe and comfortable STEM environment for people of all identities, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Any instances of discrimination, bias, or harassment need to be promptly addressed in order to create a safe learning environment.

In addition, developing self-awareness, minding the privilege gap, and reducing implicit bias are essential components of inclusive pedagogy training (Dewsbury and Brame, 2019). Students in classrooms with teachers with fixed mindsets experienced more negative affect and more impostor feelings, reducing interest and increasing dropout intentions (Muenks et al., 2020). Educators should focus on reducing stereotypes and encouraging feelings of identity and belongingness. Also, use language that is inclusive and respectful of all genders, cultures, and identities in lectures and discussions, while avoiding stereotypes and assumptions about the capabilities of students, especially of those from underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Indeed, stereotype threat is frequently pointed as a major factor influencing female students to avoid pursuing STEM fields and careers Dost (2024).

  1. Enhance Representation and Collaborative Learning:

It is well known that the situational and social context of learning and classroom practices matter and teachers play a significant role in establishing such context. Using interactive classroom engagement techniques, such as active learning, can reduce achievement gaps in STEM courses. However, integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in authentic contexts can be challenging, mirroring the complexities of the global issues that demand a new generation of STEM professionals. Teachers often struggle to establish connections across STEM disciplines, resulting in disinterest among students. This approach fails to incorporate crosscutting concepts and real-world applications, especially if they do not learn in a collaborative manner. Promoting peer networking opportunities can enhance feelings of belongingness, an essential aspect of inclusive STEM education. Collaboration and teamwork among students from diverse backgrounds, may ensure all have an equal chance to participate and contribute.

Also, it is important to showcase diverse role models and success stories of underrepresented groups in STEM through lectures, inviting guest speakers, and using different course materials to provide inspiring content. In the research of Chen et al. (2020), students were exposed to STEM role models and participated in genuine, hands-on activities designed to mimic the research work of invited STEM experts. Afterwards, the results revealed significantly positive perceptions of STEM professionals and increased interest in STEM careers.

  1. Adapt Teaching Methods and Resources for Accessibility:

Pedagogical training approaches aimed at establishing inclusive classrooms involve interventions that heighten awareness of the social identities of both students and educators. Such efforts should focus on embracing diversity as an asset leveraged to benefit all students in their learning. It is vital to recognize and accommodate diverse learning styles and capabilities. This can be achieved by implementing different teaching methods and resources, ensuring that all students have the opportunity to engage with the material in ways that suit their individual needs. In order to ensure accessibility, in particular for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is crucial to provide alternative formats for assignment and readings, by offering flexibility in how tasks are completed and information is accessed. This helps support the diverse needs of students and promotes equitable learning opportunities.

Teacher training in this matter is an important aspect to consider. For example, Sanders O’Leary et al. (2020) carried out an off-campus immersion workshop for university faculty members. The results indicate that educators: a) increased their knowledge of social identities and the barriers to learning in STEM classrooms, particularly those faced by students from underrepresented groups in STEM or socioeconomically challenged backgrounds; b) altered their perspectives regarding students’ capabilities in science fields, shifting away from a fixed-mindset perspective where attributes like intelligence are perceived as innate and unalterable; and c) modified their teaching methods to promote inclusivity and cultural responsiveness.

Furthermore, collaboration with local or international organizations and communities is essential for addressing infrastructure challenges and improving access to educational resources for all students. Also, making course materials and resources accessible to students with disabilities is critical. By prioritizing accessibility, we can create a learning environment where every student can thrive and reach their full potential.

  1. Challenge Unconscious Bias and Offer Supportive Feedback:

Extensive research indicates that both young individuals and adults often maintain limited and stereotypical perceptions of scientists and their work. Shimwell et al. (2023) observed that young children held many of the common stereotypes associated with scientists. While the predominant stereotype was the association of science with males, it was more easily altered in the short term compared to the stereotype associating intelligence with being a scientist, which remains prevalent over time. This is especially true for the perception of science being linked to intelligence, as the image of the ‘clever scientist’ is deeply embedded.

Studies reveal that women are underrepresented in STEM globally, making up only 29.3% of those in scientific research and development and 29.2% of the STEM workforce (UNESCO, 2019), despite being nearly 50% of non-STEM occupations (Society of Women Engineers, 2023). Freedman et al. (2023) noted that undergraduate women in STEM encourage their younger peers through letters, highlighting that struggles do not define their potential. As an example outside of the U.S., while women are the majority in Argentina’s university system, they only represent 34% in STEM fields, yet show higher graduation rates than men. It is essential to create policies and collaborative projects to deepen the academic and professional development of underrepresented groups in STEM fields and support teachers to become motivational agents.

When children belong to a group that is negatively stereotyped in a STEM field, they may doubt their own capabilities and their sense of belonging to that field, losing interest through time (Master, 2021). Furthermore, it is important to note that stereotypes are prevalent in educational materials. By raising awareness of unconscious biases and stereotypes, and providing training and resources for educators to recognize and mitigate bias, we can work towards building a learning environment where all students feel valued and respected. It is essential to emphasize that STEM is inclusive (and not solely for top-performing students), encouraging students with diverse talents and creative minds to participate.

Constructive feedback that recognizes the strengths and accomplishments of all students is essential for cultivating a growth mindset. Additionally, establishing mentorship and support networks can aid students in navigating their academic and professional paths in STEM fields. Peer mentoring plays a crucial role in supporting student’s persistence and success in STEM fields. This can take several forms, such as formal mentoring programs provided by institutions or informal connections formed through courses or student organizations.

  1. Design Inclusive Learning Spaces and Advocate for Equity:

Creating inclusive learning spaces and advocating for equity in STEM education are essential for fostering positive attitudes toward science and encouraging students to pursue STEM careers. Research has shown that early engagement in scientific activities correlates with later success in science and increased interest in STEM fields. To achieve this goal, it is crucial to ensure that physical learning spaces are accessible and welcoming to all students, considering their cultural and social needs. Incorporating inclusive imagery and decorations can promote a sense of belonging for every student. In addition, offering equal chances for participation in extracurricular activities, internships, and research training is essential to provide students with diverse experiences and opportunities for growth. Moreover, collaborating with local organizations and government agencies can help create pathways for students from underrepresented groups or socioeconomically challenged backgrounds to pursue STEM careers and access resources for their education and professional development. International cooperation is necessary to enhance capacity in STEM education and provide quality education to all students in different regions.

In summary, STEM education plays a vital role in stimulating innovation, addressing skill disparities, and fostering economic growth. By promoting inclusivity and encouraging more students, particularly women and underrepresented minorities, to pursue STEM careers, teachers can profoundly impact the formation of a diverse, skilled, and competitive workforce prepared to tackle the future challenges.


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About the Authors

Idowu Obisesan is currently lecturer at Bowen University Iwo, Nigeria, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. Her research focuses on the effects of abiotic and biotic stresses on legumes, with a side interest in medicinal plant research. She is the creator of The Plant Therapist YouTube channel, which features content on scientifically proven medicinal plant therapy. You can find her on X/Twitter at @IdowuAobisesan.

Ileana Tossolini is an Argentinean research associate in the small RNA Biology Lab at the Agrobiotechnology Institute of Litoral (IAL, UNL-CONICET), and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. She is a bioinformatician focused on studying the effects of siRNAs on genome structure, integrity, and evolution, as well as the mechanisms regulating miRNA biogenesis in plants. You can find her on X/Twitter at @IleanaDrt.