Why This Matters
Access to lab equipment allows hands-on science education and improves student outcomes
STEM educators around the country are utilizing a number of ways to bridge their students' base knowledge and lived experiences with subject material in order to inspire critical thinking and develop science identity, most especially via the use of practical labs and demonstrations. A significant body of research has demonstrated that hands-on learning approaches using authentic scientific tools and equipment are the most effective way to improve learning and retention in students (Bell, 2009; Markowitz, 2004; Sivan et al., 2010). Exposing students to experiments is a valuable way to engage students in real-life science and build upon concepts learned in class; however, accessibility to science equipment varies significantly by district. Unfortunately, many school districts that serve primarily underrepresented student groups (e.g. African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, women, and students facing socio-economic barriers) have the greatest difficulty in acquiring the necessary equipment to support STEM activities, further deepening issues of equity in science education and representation in STEM fields (Institute of Medicine et al., 2011).
The lack of access to high-quality STEM education has negative impacts on the retention of students from underrepresented groups in STEM majors and careers. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington analyzing data spanning 15 years of introductory general chemistry classes identified an outsized role that disparities in preparedness have on retention among students from underrepresented groups when compared to overrepresented groups (Harris et al., 2020). Research has shown that active learning approaches significantly narrow this achievement gap (Theobald et al., 2020).
Resource disparity is limiting the access to hands-on science education
As hands-on learning approaches are critical for STEM learning and retention, resource disparity has a significant negative impact on the student outcome in STEM. An analysis of the 150 largest metropolitan statistical areas showed that the cities of the Central Valley of California ranked among the least educated cities across metrics related to educational attainment and quality of education. Overall, Bakersfield, CA was ranked 147/150 for most educated cities (McCann, 2021). With other Californian cities ranked in the top 5, this analysis highlights the educational gap that exists between different regions in the state. Providing schools with equipment and support will be an important first step to improve the outcome for students in STEM.
We at Caltech LEAP hope to do our part to improve STEM accessibility and retention by providing science teachers at the high school level with the equipment necessary for lab demonstrations and hands-on active learning approaches. Check out how you can get involved.
Chart showing student retention trends between overrepresented and underrepresented student groups in Chemistry, based on 15-year data analysis (Harris et al., 2020).
Harris, R. B., Mack, M. R., Bryant, J., Theobald, E. J., & Freeman, S. (2020). Reducing achievement gaps in undergraduate general chemistry could lift underrepresented students into a "hyperpersistent zone." Science Advances, 6(24), eaaz5687.
Markowitz, D. G. (2004). Evaluation of the Long-Term Impact of a University High School Summer Science Program on Students' Interest and Perceived Abilities in Science. In Journal of Science Education and Technology (Vol. 13, Issue 3, pp. 395–407). https://doi.org/10.1023/b:jost.0000045467.67907.7b
Sivan, A., Leung, R. W., Woon, C.-C., & Kember, D. (2010). An Implementation of Active Learning and its Effect on the Quality of Student Learning. In Innovations in Education and Training International (Vol. 37, Issue 4, pp. 381–389). https://doi.org/10.1080/135580000750052991
Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, Policy and Global Affairs, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, & Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline. (2011). Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. National Academies Press.
Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., Chambwe, N., Cintrón, D. L., Cooper, J. D., Dunster, G., Grummer, J. A., Hennessey, K., Hsiao, J., Iranon, N., Jones, L., 2nd, Jordt, H., Keller, M., Lacey, M. E., Littlefield, C. E., … Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(12), 6476–6483.