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Former high school math teacher and current College of Education learning technologies Ph.D. student Anita Harvin reflects on how even underrepresented students who are highly proficient at math and science can still miss out on opportunities in STEM.

As an African-American female growing up in a small city in North Carolina, I was not surrounded by technology like the youth of today. Sure, I did have a Commodore 64 that I used for game playing, but that was the extent of my technology access. I took upper-level and AP math and science classes throughout K-12. I was even in Math Counts, a math club for junior high school students. However, looking back as an adult, I wonder why, despite my aptitude, I did not have access to mentors or opportunities in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field.

As I observe and research initiatives geared to provide digital equity and digital literacy to youth from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM, I wonder what it would have been like if I had exposure to STEM through some of these initiatives. What if 10-year-old me had participated in a computer programming class that used Scratch? Or what if I had access to videos and online discussion forums where I could learn from other like-minded individuals who owned Commodore 64 computers?

My current research interests are shaped by those “what if” questions.

As a student in the learning technologies program, I have researched and discussed the impact of using technology in educational settings. I was drawn to this program because of my desire to use technology to engage students in learning. While taking courses outside of the learning technologies program, I made interdisciplinary connections that have also helped to shape my research interests.

As an African-American and a female, I am always interested in seeing myself reflected in the research. Courses such as Sociocultural Foundations and Introduction to Qualitative Research have enlightened me on how to add the voice of the “other” to the discourse around technology in education. My current research path here at UT studies issues of digital equity and documenting digital learning experiences of youth from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM, such as females and African Americans. I am interested in understanding what types of digital learning experiences youth from underrepresented groups have in and out of school.

If youth are not able to construct the meaning and purpose of technology through their own experiences, then there will continue to be a disconnect about the affordances of technology. School is an important aspect of youths’ experiences, as they spend up to 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in school. Schools tend to use technology in structured ways influenced by the curriculum and preconceptions about what is appropriate technology use.

It is especially important that youth from groups underrepresented in STEM can envision themselves being successful in STEM activities.

Anita Harvin is a Ph.D. student in the Curriculum and Instruction Department of the College of Education. She currently works as an assessment specialist at an educational publishing company.

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey