Today’s post is brought to you by Julie Okonya
I first learned of the disparities that exist between students from privileged and underprivileged communities while taking a sociology course during my undergraduate studies. Although I sympathized with students from underprivileged communities, I couldn’t really understand what that meant. This was because I am a student from Kenya, who at the time, was attending a private college that gave us everything a student could ever want. Also, the challenges that I faced as a student in my home country were nowhere close to what I was reading.
Fast forward to my graduate studies in environmental sciences at SIUE: I joined SIUE’s Center for STEM Research, Education, & Outreach as a graduate assistant. With this job, I now go to public school in southwestern Illinois to help provide students STEM education content. When I first started working at this school and the students here, I couldn’t get a great read of what life is like for these students. We arrived to the school, provided the program, and then left. Then one day I had a conversation with one of the school’s teachers that changed my understanding of what it is like for these students.
Unfortunately, they do not have the same academic advantages compared to students from middle- or high-income communities. That conversation enabled me to get rid of the biases that I had towards science education. I started to look at science education from a different perspective. I slowly began to realize that it wasn’t enough to just address the students’ academic needs. They also have emotional needs that must be considered while trying to build their foundation and understanding of science.
For example, if a student is not paying attention it doesn’t mean they are rude. The student might be hungry or dealing with a difficult family situation at home. If that is the case, they will focus on that and not on what they are being taught. They all have the capacity to learn science and become scientists if we support them in their academic and emotional learning. With this realization I stopped discipling the students, and now I try to engage them by asking them what they need that will help them learn. Overall, I feel like working with these students has benefited them, by providing high quality STEM educational content, and has benefited me, by making me a better teacher who more comprehensively understands the many barriers students may face as they pursue their education and careers.