Introduction - Engineering for Equity

Introduction to the Blog Series

“Re-imagining engineering education from an asset-based approach has a strong propensity to develop a knowledgeable citizenry who understands the importance and value of our human constructed world, while validating and acknowledging the contributions of people of color and minoritized groups to engineering. As a field dominated by hegemonic practices and norms, engineering is a field that greatly needs critical perspectives that could help deconstruct dominant discourses” (Mejia et al., 2018, p. 9).

For decades, scholars across a variety of fields have been calling for a re-examination of the ways that we address inequities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; National Research Council, 2009; Schenkel & Calabrese Barton, 2020; Varelas et al., 2015; Vossoughi et al., 2016). With the explosion of the #BLM movement in the US, the stark realities of American politics and culture wars, the challenges faced by children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic, and other events of the last several years, these ideas about equity are starting to receive the attention they deserve. They are not new ideas. Many researchers and educators, and especially scholars of color, have been highlighting systems of inequity and championing alternative approaches for decades. But at last there seems to be some traction, with more individuals in positions of power and privilege taking notice.

Like many researchers in the field of STEM education, we have worked with so-called “undeserved” and “underrepresented” communities for many years. In our case, primarily low-income and Latinx families through our partnerships with Head Start and other community organizations. And like many researchers, we have used what we now acknowledge are relatively superficial approaches to addressing issues of inequity in STEM education— “targeting” marginalized communities, identifying problems of representation, attempting to increase access, making our research “culturally relevant.” In retrospect, much of this work likely sustained the systems of inequity that we hoped to address. And by in large, the outcomes and findings benefited us as researchers and academics, rather than the communities we intended to serve.


Thanks to funding and support from TERC, over the last year we have been able to take a few hours each week to step back from our current work, reflect on our assumptions, learn from others, and explore new ways that our research could both uncover and help dismantle inequities and racism in the STEM education system. We spent this time talking to families and leaders in our community, interviewing experts on the intersection of equity and STEM education across the country, and reading reports and literature. Throughout the process, we received guidance and feedback from a group of scholars who were generous enough to serve as critical friends: Christopher Wright, Drexel University; Nelda Reyes, AB Cultural Drivers; Maria Olivares, Boston University; and Christine Cunningham, Penn State University. In addition, our longtime collaborator from the University of Notre Dame, Gina Svarovsky, served dual roles both as critical friend and project thought partner.

The series of blog posts that we will share over the next several months are the result of these conversations and this reflective process. Our goal is to explore the themes and ideas that emerged from the year and how these might fundamentally change the way we think about STEM, work with families and children, and conduct research. We also hope this blog series will serve as a catalyst for ongoing discussions within and beyond the STEM education research community.

Our work, most of which has been conducted in close partnership with Gina Svarovsky, is situated at the intersection of engineering education, family learning, early childhood, and equity. As informal STEM learning researchers, we focus on studying and supporting ways that young children and their families engage with and develop long-term interests in engineering and other STEM topics through everyday learning experiences outside of school, including how these experiences are connected across contexts and over time (Cardella, 2020; Pattison, Callanan, et al., 2020; Pattison, Gontan, et al., 2020; Pattison, Svarovsky, et al., 2020; Pattison & Svarovsky, 2021). As our ideas about equity have evolved, we have increasingly focused on centering families within our work, developing long-term, reciprocal relationships with communities and organizations, building on family assets rather than focusing on deficits and challenges, and moving beyond the traditional ideas of access to instead focus on understanding and helping disrupt the deeper systems of inequity within our society (Bang et al., 2016; Bevan et al., 2018; Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2020; Ladson-Billings, 2006; Tolbert et al., 2018; Yosso, 2005).

While our reflections focus on engineering education and our work with families, we believe the themes that emerged for us over the last year have implications across STEM domains and learning contexts. In upcoming posts, we will reflect on

  • Rethinking Our Approach to Collaborating with Families to Study and Support Engineering Learning, Part 1 and Part 2,

  • asset-based approaches to STEM education,

  • rethinking how we define engineering, and

  • other themes that have emerged throughout the process.

Please share thoughts or reach out to us at any time in response to these emerging ideas. We look forward to hearing your reactions and learning from you over the next several months.

Scott Pattison, TERC
Smirla Ramos Montañez, TERC

Navigate to other blog posts in this series here:

  1. Introduction - Engineering for Equity
  2. Family Collaboration, post 1
  3. Family collaboration, post 2
  4. Applying Asset-based Approaches
  5. Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 1
  6. Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 2
  7. Re-envisioning Engineering Education, post 1
  8. Re-envisioning Engineering Education, post

Now available as an eBook. Download here!

About the Authors

Scott Pattison, PhD, is a Research Scientist at TERC. He has been studying and supporting STEM education and learning since 2003, as an educator, program and exhibit developer, evaluator, and researcher. His current work focuses on engagement, learning, and interest and identity development in free-choice and out-of-school environments, including museums, community-based organizations, and everyday settings. He has led numerous informal STEM education research projects and initiatives, including Head Start on Engineering, Storybook STEM, Math in Making, and REVEAL.

Smirla Ramos MontañezPhD, is a bilingual (Spanish/English) and bicultural (Puerto Rican/American) Family STEM Learning Researcher at TERC. She has led and supported a variety of projects, including program and exhibit evaluation as well as STEM education research designed to provide accessible, culturally relevant, and engaging experiences for diverse audiences. Currently, she is the PI of the NSF-funded Diálogos project, which will engage parents as research partners to explore how informal family engineering activities can be leveraged to support the development of executive function skills for preschool-age children from Latinx families.

References Cited

Bang, M., Faber, L., Gurneau, J., Marin, A., & Soto, C. (2016). Community-based design research: Learning across generations and strategic transformations of institutional relations toward axiological innovations. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 23(1), 28–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/10749039.2015.1087572

Bevan, B., Calabrese Barton, A., & Garibay, C. (2018). Broadening perspectives on broadening participation in STEM: Critical perspectives on the role of science engagement. Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education. https://www.informalscience.org/sites/default/files/BP-Report.pdf

Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2020). Beyond equity as inclusion: A framework of “rightful presence” for guiding justice-oriented studies in teaching and learning. Educational Researcher. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X20927363

Cardella, M. E. (2020, March). Early childhood engineering: Supporting engineering design practices with young children and their families. NARST 2020 Annual International Conference, Portland, OR. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340234317_Early_Childhood_Engineering_Supporting_Engineering_Design_Practices_with_Young_Children_and_Their_Families

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X035007003

Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. F. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/10282580701850413

Mejia, J., Revelo, R., Villanueva, I., & Mejia, J. (2018). Critical theoretical frameworks in engineering education: An anti-deficit and liberative approach. Education Sciences, 8(4), 158. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci8040158

National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. National Academies Press.

Pattison, S. A., Callanan, M., Katz, P., Huerta Migus, L., Ramos Montañez, S., Svarovsky, G., & Takeuchi, L. (2020, April 22). Four principles for supporting family learning during the global health crisis: Research-based reflections for teachers and educators. https://www.informalscience.org/news-views/four-principles-supporting-family-learning-during-global-health-crisis-research-based-reflections

Pattison, S. A., Gontan, I., Ramos Montañez, S., Shagott, T., Francisco, M., & Dierking, L. D. (2020). The Identity-Frame Model: A framework to describe situated identity negotiation for adolescent girls participating in an informal engineering education program. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 29(4–5), 550–597. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508406.2020.1770762

Pattison, S. A., & Svarovsky, G. N. (2021, January 15). Sharpening our focus on equity: Reflections from the Storybook STEM project. https://www.informalscience.org/news-views/sharpening-our-focus-equity-reflections-storybook-stem-project

Pattison, S. A., Svarovsky, G., Ramos Montañez, S., Gontan, I., Weiss, S., Núñez, V., Corrie, P., Smith, C., & Benne, M. (2020). Understanding early childhood engineering interest development as a family-level systems phenomenon: Findings from the Head Start on Engineering project. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 10(1), 72–89. https://doi.org/10.7771/2157-9288.1234

Schenkel, K., & Calabrese Barton, A. (2020). Critical science agency and power hierarchies: Restructuring power within groups to address injustice beyond them. Science Education, 104(3), 500–529. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21564

Tolbert, S., Schindel, A., & Rodriguez, A. J. (2018). Relevance and relational responsibility in justice-oriented science education research. Science Education, 102(4), 796–819. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21446

Varelas, M., Settlage, J., & Mensah, F. M. (2015). Explorations of the structure-agency dialectic as a tool for framing equity in science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(4), 439–447. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21230

Vossoughi, S., Hooper, P. K., & Escudé, M. (2016). Making through the lens of culture and power: Toward transformative visions for educational equity. Harvard Educational Review, 86(2), 206–232. https://doi.org/10.17763/0017-8055.86.2.206

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91. https://doi.org/10.1080/1361332052000341006



Introduction - Engineering for Equity
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Scott Pattison, Smirla Ramos Montañez

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