Fostering Community, Inclusion & Belonging in STEAM Classroom

June 6, 2023

This article first appeared on Reader platform, Stem News Chronicle (May 2023) by Dr. Imène Ghernati.

We can’t expect students to choose a career in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) if the schools have not made STEAM education accessible to all in K-12. We need to design STEAM culture for inclusion and social change because when diverse people come together in an interdisciplinary way, it makes our world much more creative, regenerative, and brighter. The most significant skill development with STEAM is the Liberatory Design Thinking which students can apply to other life challenges. The liberatory Design Thinking process used in STEAM includes mindsets and modes such as empathize, define, inquire, imagine, and prototype that can be used in any order(1). While STEM as an acronym has been used, we believe the A is an essential part of the creative process and taking risks when approaching and imagining new possibilities. In her article, The Imperative to Move Toward a Dimension of Care in Engineering Education, Dr. Sara Tolbert calls for a dimension of care and empathy in Engineering Design to address the socio-political foundations of many of the world's most pressing challenges (2). 

 STEAM education is about bridging the gap between the classroom and real life. In many schools. STEAM education is heavily focused on science and mathematics. Generally, it ignores the critical role of engineering, arts, liberatory design thinking, and technology in preparing students to participate in an increasingly technical, innovative and unequal world. The interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to STEAM integration, whereby the knowledge and skills learned in two or more STEAM disciplines are applied to real-world problems and/or used to deepen understanding represent the ideal approaches to implementing authentic STEAM in the classroom as Rodger Bybee’s seminal article, Advancing STEM Education: A 2020 Vision, clearly articulated the basis for STEAM education planning (3).

To address our most pressing societal challenges—climate change, environmental justice, healthcare, energy, economic growth, and equity—as well as our most potent opportunities, we need STEAM education centered on justice, care for the environment and the society as early as elementary school. All students have the possibility to see themselves in STEAM education through enriched and engaging experiences that matter to them. Throughout my three decades in Science education, I observed the importance of embodying STEAM identity starting in the early years of elementary school. A school with trees and a native garden is STEAM. A compost bin is STEAM. The use of low-energy CFL light is STEAM.

The focus on hands-on learning with real-world applications helps develop various skill sets, including creativity, empathy, collaboration, self-confidence, and a STEAM identity. In the United States, STEAM is almost nonexistent in public elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods. Quality STEAM instruction is not equitably distributed. In middle schools, teachers who haven’t taken STEAM education classes as part of their own higher education face challenges in cultivating a classroom community where everyone feels they belong in STEAM. Thus, when students arrive in high school, they are already disconnected from STEAM. Only the brightest students, as determined by hegemonic criteria that marginalizes students based on grades or test scores, will engage in more advanced science courses such as AP science classes, robotics, or physics classes. AP science classes have been the gatekeeper for higher education, deciding who belongs and preventing access to higher-level science curriculums. The proportion of black, Latinx, and/or female students taking high-level math and science courses continues to trail that of their white male peers, jeopardizing their ability to master the knowledge they need to secure a college-preparatory diploma in STEAM. Those findings from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights analysis reflect data from the 2015-16 school year (4).

While we learn to shift our mindset from problem-solving to re-imagining a thriving future where everyone belongs, we have to inquire why STEAM is not taught in K-12 schools in a welcoming, enriching, inclusive, experiential, and relevant way. Children learn by actively constructing their knowledge through dialogues, hands-on, questioning, sensing, and sharing. One day I brought a box of Legos that included motorized elements to Gateway middle school, a charter school that serves a diverse population of students in San Francisco. I left it on a table in the maker space without any notes: The next day, a student-built a fan.

Over the years working in diverse K-12 schools and with science teachers, I have tested multiple engineering design protocols grounded in participatory design-based approaches and a justice-oriented stance on learning. Each design, whether self-directed or guided learning, improved students' understanding of essential engineering and design principles while encouraging open ended questions, creativity and finding better possibilities to common challenges. Some of the highly popular engineering designs used during the Summer Academy Program (SAP) I co-created and co-directed in partnership with Gateway Middle Schools in 2021 and 2022 were self guided and self-paced. While building a solar cooker, students could think of alternative cooking methods using limited materials.

The design of a wallet activity with recycled materials provided an authentic learning experiences through research, survey, empathic listening, and collaboration. The building of a chemical reaction car powered by baking soda and vinegar taught fundamental physics while engaging students in chemistry. Students shared that it was fun and educational at the same time. Another student wrote: “Even though my design failed terribly, it was still fun and interesting to see how I could improve from my peers.”

The maker space we implemented at SAP prioritized the hands-on experience, belonging and art necessary for developing an innovative mind while providing students with choice, agency, and freedom to move and interact with each other (5). If some students were initially shy when entering the maker space the first time, they quickly began to build agency and take responsibility for their learning. One student shared: “I found it to be the best part of the week because I was so excited to make stuff and create stuff from raw materials!.” When students can commit to a space or a set of practices that invites their full selves and where they feel valued, they can learn how to engage in problem-solving strategies or through projects that matter to them. An inclusive STEAM curriculum is inviting to all group members of the school community.


1-Anaissie, T, et al. “Liberatory Design.” Liberatory Design, National Equity Project, 2021, 

2- Gunckel, K. & Tolbert, S. The Imperative to Move Toward a Dimension of Care in Engineering Education, (2018). Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

3- Bybee, R. W. Advancing STEM Education: A 2020 Vision. (2010). Technology and Engineering Teacher, 70, 30-35.

4- “2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection: Stem Course Taking Issue Brief.” 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection: STEM Course Taking Issue Brief | National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE), 24 Apr. 2018, 

5- Ghernati, Imène. “How Makerspace Can Foster Community, Inclusion & Belonging - Essentials Magazine.” Essentials Magazine - Covering Trends Impacting the Educational Products Marketplace, Essential Magazine, 25 Jan. 2023.

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