Getting my first-graders to see themselves in STEM

As a first-grade teacher with 29 years of experience, I know how important representation is. “You have to see it to be it” is a classic saying for a reason. And while we’ve been saying that for a while now, society hasn’t caught up just yet. In schools, students need to see themselves in STEM.

headshot of Stacy Tavares for helping kids see themselves in STEM article.

The US faces a diversity and equity challenge, particularly within the STEM fields. Women comprise only 24% of the US STEM workforce. The percentage of Black STEM professionals has not increased since 2016, while Hispanic professionals currently make up only 8% of the STEM workforce.

In my experience, kids need to know that opportunities in STEM fields exist for them. When I asked my students to draw a scientist, many of them drew a white man in a white coat with goggles performing experiments. As an educator, it is my job to break that stereotype and show my students that they are scientists — right here and now.

I do so by integrating thoughtful, STEM-focused resources into my lesson plans. Here are two ways I like to make that happen.

Free digital libraries for students

Digital libraries can be a goldmine for students. Mine love the free-to-educators Epic Digital Library for Kids, a nearly 10-year-old resource with thousands of books on every topic that gets even the most reluctant reader to want to read. Libraries like these are especially powerful for students when the selections feature diversity and inclusivity in both content and authors, helping students see themselves in STEM.

I use the library to create my own book collections connected to my science units. When I am planning out my lessons, I look in the database to see what engaging books are available and add them to my science unit. I can use the books as either a preview to a lesson or a follow-up to solidify and expand students’ understanding. Either way, my students are engaged in powerful learning experiences.

Often, digital libraries can be shared with families to extend learning in the home environment, whether related to science, math or even social-emotional learning. This was especially important for me during the pandemic.

Digital libraries that sort books by genre, topic, author and format — as well as those that offer reading-assistance tools, dictionaries, audiobooks, word games and library curation — offer the most options to students. They get to learn in the way that’s best for them.

Diverse STEM video resources

Digital, ready-to-use multimedia science and STEM curriculum resources can put kids at the center of the learning, letting students see themselves in STEM. I frequently use Mystery Science’s videos and activities, which feature students all across the country asking questions that get answered in fun and interesting ways.

Look for resources that feature diverse scientists who help kids explore and serve as stereotype-breaking STEM role models who encourage students to be scientists themselves.

Female student placing tissue paper on outline of flower for article on helping kids see themselves in STEM
Photo by Stacy Tavares

We recently completed a unit on light, sound, and communication unit that featured hands-on activities. Some vendors offer supply packs to complement the activities, which are a total blessing for a busy teacher! My class and I made “stained-glass art” from pre-cut tissue paper squares and Glad Press’n Seal food wrap to learn about the properties of light.

As we continue to navigate the post-COVID educational landscape, we are learning many new things about how our students learn. But one thing that is not new is the need to engage students in learning.  To truly engage students, they need to see themselves in STEM instruction.  If we can get students engaged in STEM, especially at a young age, I believe we can create a more diverse STEM landscape for the future.