Nearly 100% of American science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs require some type of postsecondary education, and yet while women are nearly half of the workforce, science and engineering degree holders are predominantly white men.
And while plenty of efforts have been undertaken to close that STEM gap in K-12 education and at universities, community colleges — where one third of all high school graduates initially enroll — have been largely ignored.
To help address that, professors at Lehigh University and Arizona State University created a five-week, technology-focused entrepreneurship program, implemented through one of the nation’s largest community college systems, the Maricopa County Community College District. Dubbed “Poder,” the program offered entrepreneurial and technology skills for women, minorities and immigrants.
The creators of the program studied the results of the curriculum after several years of operation at five community college campuses, and found that students in Poder experienced notable gains in both readiness to use technology, and in their confidence to be entrepreneurs.
“Our study supports the idea that culturally-responsive teaching that focuses on critical consciousness is an effective way of engaging communities that face marginalization in education related to STEM entrepreneurship,” said Germán A. Cadenas, an assistant professor of counseling psychology with Lehigh’s College of Education, and co-author of the study. “Using this type of culturally-responsive education more broadly, and paired with other systemic interventions, could play a major role in helping close achievement and skills gaps in STEM and entrepreneurial fields.”
The Poder program consisted of 30 hours of education, split between in-person training sessions, and self-paced online modules, interviews and meetings with a mentor, with a specific focus on the Internet of Things (IoT).
“Students in the program are prompted to reflect on systemic issues impacting their communities, and facilitators lead dialogues that promote collective critical reflection about these issues, and their intersection with students’ cultural identities,” the report reads. “Students then apply what they are learning in the program to design a social venture that addresses a community issue, thus having the opportunity to move from critical reflection to critical behavior and civic participation.”
Alissa Ruth, co-author of the study, added: “It’s quite encouraging to see the students’ gains from a relatively short program. Our research shows that the thoughtfully designed curriculum, backed by scientific evidence, along with a support system of educators, mentors and program staff have direct impacts to students’ lives.
“We hope that our research encourages others to implement similar programs in order to help address inequities faced by historically underrepresented students in these fields.”