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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.

Credit: California Science Teachers Association

Chart showing student retention trends between overrepresented and underrepresented student groups in Chemistry, based on 15-year data analysis (Harris et al., 2020).

Central Valley, CA