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Looking to Engage Diverse Students in Tech? Tips from Faculty Experts

Two UT College of Education professors offer research-based tips.

African Americans, Latinos, and women of all ethnicities are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. That’s why educators and families want to increase these students’ engagement with technology at earlier ages. When students see themselves as great at math or a whiz at computer science when they’re young, they are more likely to study engineering or computer programming later.

But what will engage them and be helpful to them in school?

Research findings by the College of Education’s Professor Min Liu and Associate Professor Joan Hughes provide insights that may surprise you.

Aliens to the Rescue

Min LiuLiu’s research, “Designing Science Learning with Game-Based Approaches,” explores digital games as a tool for learning. Liu and a team of researchers and students launched Alien Rescue, a science-education game geared toward sixth-graders.

Their subsequent research examined these students’ science learning and motivation, and the relationship between the two. Their findings showed that all of the students improved their science knowledge after playing Alien Rescue, determined by comparing their pre-game test scores with post-game scores; but girls outperformed boys every time, scoring 2-3 points higher on their post-game tests.

The study also noted that girls made fewer negative comments about the game than boys and that the game’s theme of saving aliens resonated with girls more than boys.

Key Recommendations for Educators

  • Incorporate multimedia technology into the curriculum—audio, video, graphics, animation—for middle-schoolers because it provides an engaging, multi-sensory way to learn science.
  • Engage girls in particular; honor their mission-driven social interests. (See Jill Marshall’s One Big Question interview for more.)

Educators Should Look for Differences in Student Access to Technology at Home and School

Joan HughesSocial media, blogs, wikis, and video creation—these are among the activities that make up Web 2.0. Associate Professor Hughes wanted to investigate the variation in ways students access these tools at school and at home.

Her recently published paper, “Predicting Middle School Students’ Use of Web 2.0 Technologies Out of School Using Home and School Technological Variables,” explores whether students’ use of technology in class could predict their use outside school.

It turns out that student’s ethnicity, access to technologies they may—or may not—have at home, how they use technology in school, and the school a child attends, can indeed predict their use of Web 2.0 applications out of school. Hughes’ research highlighted the growing body of knowledge reflecting school inequality.

It’s important for educators to understand what children do with technology when they aren’t in the classroom and how those experiences vary. It allows them to be responsive to their students’ needs, previous knowledge, and experiences. That knowledge can help them close gaps and increase students’ motivation.

For example, in general, students’ Internet-based Web 2.0 technology activities are higher outside of school. When broken down by ethnicity, though, Hispanic students are at the biggest disadvantage, showing statistically lower participation in Web 2.0 activities out of school.

That participation gap means these students are missing opportunities to gain skills society increasingly demands.

Says Hughes, “Our research showed that ethnicity-based technology participation gaps existed in and out of school. Schools are not equal, and that has ramifications for what kids get from them.”

Key Recommendations for Educators

  • Teachers often go into the classroom unprepared to think about how to use technology. They need assistance learning how to integrate technology into the class through teacher education or professional development.
  • Teachers should consider surveying their students at the beginning of the school year to assess how they use technology outside of school and use that knowledge to give them a chance to broaden and deepen their participatory Web 2.0 skills in the classroom.

“If the world is demanding these skills and we want to create a world where all kids have these opportunities,” says Hughes, “then we have to do better.”

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