How to Close the STEM Achievement Gap for Indigenous Students: Feature Local Culture

By Lauraine Langreo — June 28, 2022 2 min read
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Consider the reality for Indigenous students: high school dropout rates are higher than for other groups, math proficiency is lower, and attainment of college degrees is lower.

Some people might think the solution to that problem is to just add technology.

But a new study discussed at the 2022 International Society for Technology in Education conference found that any solution to the achievement gap needs to “consider the whole system,” because “students don’t learn in a vacuum,” said Maria Burns Ortiz, one of the co-authors of the study and the CEO of 7 Generation Games, an educational gaming company.

The study, conducted before the pandemic forced schools to turn to virtual learning, looked at what factors educators working in rural schools with predominantly Indigenous students believe impact those students’ achievement in science, technology, engineering, and math. The researchers interviewed 40 educators from 32 schools and after-school programs with at least 90 percent Indigenous students.

The analysis of the interviews found six major themes about what educators think would improve STEM achievement for Indigenous students: highly qualified staff, holistic STEM education, specific STEM curriculum and instruction, inclusion of local culture in education, technology infrastructure, and greater STEM funding.

The study was funded by a National Science Foundation grant that asked education companies to look into how technology can solve a problem in schools. But educators who were interviewed “strongly felt that you couldn’t just put in technology as a Band-Aid, that it wasn’t a stand-alone thing. It had to be integrated with everything else, with kids learning their culture, with individualized curriculum,” said lead author AnnMaria De Mars during an interview with Education Week before the conference. De Mars is the president of 7 Generation Games.

Researchers, who also included Juliana Taken Alive from the Standing Rock Tribal Department of Education, noted that the themes are connected to each other. Without highly qualified staff, schools can’t easily have a holistic STEM education or can’t easily include culture in STEM education or can’t have proper tech integration. Without funding, schools can’t hire qualified staff, schools can’t afford effective technology, and schools can’t provide curriculum materials.

To really solve the achievement gap, schools also have to solve this “spider web” of interconnected issues, the researchers said.

But at the end of the day, the priority for the educators in Indigenous communities was having a STEM curriculum that included local culture and tribal languages.

“It was really clear from the interviews that while integrating the curriculum and knowledge would be nice, [educators] really felt strongly that it needed to be reflective of their students’ specific tribal languages and cultures,” Burns Ortiz said.

“When [students] see things in context, it makes more sense to [them]. They memorize it better. They remember it better. They pay more attention to it,” said De Mars.

The researchers said that during interviews, some educators expressed concern that nothing practical was going to come out of the research. So the researchers, with funding from the USDA, created math games that included Indigenous culture to help students connect to what they were learning. Analysis of students’ use of the games found that students’ math scores improved significantly, De Mars said.


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