Culturally Responsive STEM Education

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the student population in the U.S. is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Providing quality, equitable STEM education for PreK-12 students, particularly students who have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields, requires curriculum, instruction, and assessment that value their cultural practices and reflect their lived experiences.

In this Spotlight, Christa Haverly reflects on Whiteness and positionality in the context of culturally responsive education research. Notes from the 2016 PI Meeting session Culturally Responsive STEM Education provide an overview of the theoretical foundations of culturally responsive education and its application in the STEM disciplines. In addition, DRK-12 projects discuss how their work incorporates culturally responsive STEM instruction, curricula, and assessment, or intersects with culturally responsive STEM education in ways that contribute to the knowledge base around broadening participation in STEM.

In this Spotlight...

Critically Examining Whiteness in Culturally Responsive Education

Christa Haverly, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Northwestern University

Christa Haverly

Culturally responsive teaching is responsive to students’ lived experiences, cultural repertoires of practice, linguistic resources, and other ways of knowing and being in this world. Here I take up race, recognizing that this is just one part of the culturally responsive story. To that end, though I am cautious to center another White voice in a conversation about culturally responsive teaching, I offer the following narrative as a critical reflection on my racialized positionality in hopes that it creates space for dialogue with and among White researchers while continuing to listen to and learn from scholars of Color (including from this spotlight).

Culturally Responsive STEM Education PI Meeting Session

At the 2016 DRK-12 PI Meeting, Amy Wilson-Lopez (currently an NSF program director) led a roundtable discussion on culturally responsive STEM education. This session handout introduces the theoretical foundations of culturally responsive education (including culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 1975, 2013) and culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995, 2014)), constructs for grounding STEM education in students' lives, applications of culturally responsive education in the STEM disciplines, and key questions and issues in culturally responsive STEM education.

Featured Projects

Building upon Kahua A‘o—A Learning Foundation to Transform Teaching Practices and Develop Teacher Leaders (NSF #1551502 and 1721356)

PI: Pauline W. U. Chinn | Co-PIs: Steven Businger, Scott Rowland, Marvin Nogelmeier, Celia Smith, Kirsten Mawyer, Kahealaniakealo Faria
Grades: PreK-12, Informal
STEM Discipline: Earth Systems Science
Target Populations: Teachers of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students

Description: Imagine growing up in Hawaiʻi where familiar plants, animals, and places never enter your classroom learning because science texts and teacher preparation do not include Hawaiʻi. The Transforming Teaching and Teacher Leadership projects address this gap with professional development situated in students’ cultures and places. Teachers explore their students’ communities to identify issues and resources for place-based, experiential, meaningful STEA2M (ancestral, art) lessons that address NGSS and Nā Hopena Aʻo, learner outcomes relevant to Hawaiʻi.

Approach to Addressing Culturally Responsive STEM Education: Aʻo means to teach and to learn. PD is designed to develop place-based expertise and curricular leadership that addresses social and ecological justice. Teachers’ STEA2M lessons engage underrepresented Native Hawaiian (NH) students in learning grounded in their culture and communities. The 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and policies forbidding Hawaiian in schools transformed a highly literate people into an educational underclass. My family arrived in the 1880s, but I did not learn about the 1000+ Hawaiian language public schools or 100+ Hawaiian language newspapers published between 1834 and 1948. By 1900, 90 percent of Hawaiians had died from foreign diseases, introduced species threatened fragile ecosystems, and plantations diverted water from taro farmers. When a 1978 constitutional amendment recognized Hawaiian as an official language, Hawaiian language, culture, and ecosystems were in dire straits. 

Overcoming institutional racism calls for transdisciplinary, innovative approaches (e.g., place-based PD, diverse professional learning communities, curricula that incorporates Hawaiian language newspaper articles and texts, and teacher-led learning centers. The transdisciplinary Transforming Teaching and Teacher Leadership team models the intersection of science, culture, and place. Community-based immersions and diverse professional learning communities help teachers connect Hawaiian knowledge and practices with STEM oriented to environmental literacy and stewardship.

Early Findings: Teachers’ culturally sustaining, high context STEA2M lessons connecting place, culture, and current issues are important when Hawaiian worldviews are grounded in generations of place-based knowledge oriented to sustainability. Community and curricular mapping strategies include interviews of elders to incorporate human resources from their students’ communities. These strategies support cultural sensitivity, leading to teacher agency, curricular leadership, and a social-ecosystem view of education that transforms curricula to be community based. Teachers comment on their learning and increased student interest and academic engagement. The model works across Hawaiʻi’s urban and rural communities and transfers to American Samoa where most teachers and children speak Samoan.

Theoretical Framework: The projects are grounded in sociocultural learning theories that view learning as a “process of human change and transformation [that] always entails participation in relationship and community and transformation both of the person and of the social world” (p. 239, Packer & Goicoechea, 2000). Cultural mental model theory (Bang et al, 2007), tribal critical race theory (Brayboy, 2005; Yosso, 2005), Sewell’s (1992) theory of structure and agency, and Kana‘iaupuni’s (2004) strengths-based educational approach view teaching and learning through a sociocultural lens that highlights the interplay of power and knowledge. Sewell views social structures as having dual characteristics of schema (mental models) and resources (physical entities). If cultures are not monolithic but composed of multiple structures of schema and resources that may be analyzed in terms of power and knowledge, then PD asking participants to learn about the structures and resources in their students’ places and cultures leads to agency and transformation. Teacher agency arises through the deliberate intersection of structures and reassembling of schema and resources in new ways that transform knowledge structures, roles, relationships, and identities. 

Participants begin with two strategies to develop transdisciplinary expertise and agency to create place-based, culturally sustaining STEA2M curricula. The first strategy, community mapping develops place-based expertise. This includes interviewing elders and researching the deep history of the ahupuaʻa (precontact geopolitical, largely sustainable, mountain-to-sea resource unit) in which they teach to identify human, cultural, and physical resources to bring to place-based, culturally sustaining NGSS curriculum development (Coleman, Chinn, Morrison, & Kaupp, 2019; McCarty & Lee, 2014, Yosso, 2005; Sewell, 1992). Teachers become familiar with cultures (Bang et al, 2007), and knowledge structures and resources (Sewell, 1992) that hold different meanings for groups with competing interests within the same place. In the second strategy, curricular mapping, teachers identify the intersections of place-based cultural, human, and physical STEM resources and issues that can be brought productively to NGSS curriculum development, culminating in active place-based inquiry and sharing of learning. Teachers are asked to incorporate cultural texts e.g., translations of Hawaiian language newspaper articles, moʻolelo (stories), ʻōlelo noʻeau (proverbs) and inquiry-oriented field experiences in their lessons. A translator team provides Hawaiian language newspaper articles as primary resources for 19th C practices and places through authentic Hawaiian voices.

Methodology: Both principal investigator and participating educators are action researchers studying their practices, assessing their knowledge, evaluating and sharing outcomes. Read more.

Key Challenge: A challenge to implementing culture and community-based PD is the outsider status of most researchers and educators. Trust, time and relationship building and maintenance are necessary for work in minoritized communities with histories of oppression and exclusion. These communities often experience high teacher turnover. Without trust, community members who could be resources remain silent and teachers find it difficult to develop high context, meaningful lessons situated in their student’s lives and cultures. Hawaiʻi’s Kulana Noiʻi Research Standards, co-developed by Sea Grant researchers and community, provide ethical standards for community-based research based on respect, relationships, reciprocity, and transparency.

Recommended Readings:

  • Kana‘iaupuni, S. M. (2004). Ka‘akālai Kū Kanaka: A call for strengths-based approaches from a Native Hawaiian Perspective, Educational Researcher, 33, 26-32. 
  • Sewell, W. H., Jr. (1992). A theory of structure: Duality, agency, and transformation. American Journal of Sociology, 98, 1-29.
  • Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8, 69-91, doi:10.1080/1361332052000341006

Products: Website | Publications

CAREER: Cultivating Teachers' Epistemic Empathy to Promote Responsive Teaching (NSF #1844453)

PI: Lama Jaber
Grades: K-12
STEM Disciplines: Science, Mathematics
Target Populations: Pre-service and in-service science and mathematics teachers

Description: This project aims to study science and mathematics teachers’ “epistemic empathy”, or their understanding and appreciation of students’ cognitive and emotional experiences within activities designed to construct, communicate, and critique knowledge. The research will explore ways to cultivate teachers’ epistemic empathy and examine how such empathy influences teachers’ enactment of responsive teaching practices. The project will also investigate how teachers’ empathy shapes students’ engagement and their attention and responsiveness to each other’s experiences.

Approach to Addressing Culturally Responsive STEM Education: While this project is not grounded in culturally responsive teaching, there are aspects of the work that intersect with this approach. My project draws primarily on literature on responsive teaching in science and mathematics (see Robertson, Scherr, & Hammer, 2016), which is premised on the notion that students’ ideas, questions, and curiosities are resources that can be leveraged to make sense of the world and to engage in disciplinary ways of thinking. At the heart of responsive teaching, then, is listening closely to students, identifying merits in their thinking, and developing instructional moves that pursue the productive beginnings in student work. From this perspective, responsive teaching intersects with culturally responsive teaching in its orientation to students’ experiences—including their linguistic, cultural, and experiential knowledge—as resources, challenging deficit narratives particularly of students from historically marginalized populations. To promote a resource-based orientation toward all students as sense-makers, this project will take a design-based approach aimed at cultivating teachers’ epistemic empathy through various learning opportunities. These include using classroom videos and artifacts of practice to expand teachers’ attention beyond ideas that align with their own or with the canon toward considering how learners’ diverse sense-making repertoires hold deep and valuable disciplinary meanings.

Key Challenge: One challenge for the research team is to identify markers of epistemic empathy in different sources of data, including in teachers’ discussions, written reflections on videos of teaching, and within instruction. Relatedly, we wrestle with how to best operationalize the construct of epistemic empathy in terms of grain-size and scope. These challenges raise many questions around the nature of empathy, how empathy manifests and gets communicated, and potential implications for equity when considering the relationship between teachers and students of various backgrounds. As we move forward with this work, we welcome thoughts from the community on these and other matters.

Recommended Readings: This list of resources represents key work in responsive teaching in science and mathematics that informs this project (not grounded in culturally responsive teaching but potentially intersecting with it).

  • Ball, D. L. (1993). With an eye on the mathematical horizon: Dilemmas of teaching elementary school mathematics. The Elementary School Journal, 93(4), 373-397.
  • Levin, D. M., Hammer, D., Elby, A., & Coffey, J. (2012). Becoming a responsive science teacher: Focusing on student thinking in secondary science. Arlington VA: NSTA Press.
  • Robertson, A. D., Scherr, R. E., & Hammer, D. (Eds.) (2016). Responsive teaching in science and mathematics. New York, NY: Routledge.

Relevant Websites:

CRIS LogoCulturally Responsive Indigenous Science: Connecting Land, Language, and Culture (NSF #1720931)

PIs: Paula Groves PriceCo-PIs: Kimberly Christen; Higheagle Strong, Z
Grades: 4-9
STEM Discipline: Science, Technology
Target Populations: Native American students

Description: In collaboration with three tribal communities in the Northwest, the Culturally Responsive Indigenous Science (CRIS) project catalyzes new approaches to Indigenous science teaching and learning through land-based science curriculum and hands-on enrichment programs that weave Indigenous knowledges and languages with western science and digital tools to increase Native American students’ learning, engagement and achievement across the sciences.

Approach to Addressing Culturally Responsive STEM Education: Core to the project’s innovation, the CRIS project team includes tribal language/culture teachers, school science, mathematics, special education teachers, university faculty, and graduate students. Through a community-based approach to curriculum design, the project team collaborates to develop land-based science curriculum that weaves together traditional ecological knowledge, language, technology and western science in ways that address national science standards while honoring tribal culture, language, and sovereignty. To accomplish this, the CRIS team gathers quarterly in each tribal homeland and at Washington State University to develop curriculum modules, engage in teacher professional development, and provide enrichment programming for Native American youth. All project activities are designed for students and teachers to critically problem-solve local issues related to the environment and sustainability from the perspective of traditional knowledge, stories, and language. The modules include innovative lessons with H5P interactive content, digitized and archived cultural materials from the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, and media resources. Teachers and students utilize the CRIS project website and iPad application to access the modules, engage in interactive lessons, gather content, and create video and project-based assessments. This project builds bridges between schools, tribal departments, and communities and develops a regional network of support across tribal nations.

Early Findings: Including elders/community knowledge keepers and centering Indigenous languages and culture in the curriculum development process is a critical component of developing culturally responsive Indigenous STEM education. Culturally responsive and sustaining Indigenous STEM education requires approaching curriculum, teaching, learning, assessment, and research methodologies from the knowledge systems of the community. Building strong relationships based on trust, respect, and reciprocity is key for researchers engaging in culturally responsive work. Following cultural protocols is equally important to following institutional research protocols. Many research instruments and survey tools are not culturally responsive, so researchers should be prepared to build culturally responsive evaluation instruments.

Key Challenge: A challenge for a project with a university, multiple schools, and sovereign tribal nations dispersed across multiple states is communication. State education policies, and university and tribal government policies and procedures do not always align. Managing changes in leadership and staff turnover in schools and tribal governments can be difficult. We utilize multiple structures of communication to ensure project success:

  • Community Liaisons in each Tribal community communicate with the research team monthly via Zoom and lead on-site community-school collaboration meetings;
  • Weekly university project team meetings; and
  • Quarterly gatherings of the entire research team for collaborative curriculum development and professional development.

Recommended Reading:

  • Tuck, E., McKenzie, M., & McCoy, Kate. (2014). Land education: Indigenous, post-colonial, and decolonizing perspectives on place and environmental education research. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 1-23. doi:10.1080/13504622.2013.877708

Products: Video (Annual Field Trip) | Video (CRIS Summer Camp) | Lesson Plan Template 

Development and Empirical Recovery for a Learning Progression-Based Assessment of the Function Concept (NSF #1621117)

PIs: Edith GrafCo-PIs: Robert Moses, Gregory Budzban, Peter van Rijn, Sarah Ohls
Grades: 9-12
STEM Discipline: Mathematics
Target Populations: The principle participants are students in schools that are seeking to improve the mathematics education of students characterized as underserved and segregated through factors of race, ethnicity, and class.

Description: The goal of our project, which is a collaborative effort among Educational Testing Service (ETS), The Algebra Project, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE), and the Young People’s Project (YPP), is to validate the interpretation of a learning progression-based assessment for the concept of function in mathematics. Evaluating the validity of a learning progression (LP) for students typically characterized by race, ethnicity, and class as underserved is a commitment of the partners in this research.

Approach to Addressing Culturally Responsive STEM Education: The partnership is key to supporting culturally responsive STEM education. ETS is working to ensure that assessments promote equity in education; the Algebra Project and SIUE are working to build teaching and learning environments where struggling students can achieve 21st century mathematics literacy; and YPP engages young people in removing barriers to educational opportunity.

In designing a learning progression-based assessment, it is crucial to minimize construct-irrelevant difficulty in test items so students can reveal their understandings of the concept of function. By intentionally focusing on cultural responsiveness in the item review process, we hope to support valid assessment of knowledge for students who are most in need.

An important component of this process involved incorporating student voice through focus groups and cognitive interviews, which YPP “Math Literacy Workers” (MLWs) engaged in. MLWs are trained to lead mathematics education outreach work for the younger peers in their communities. In their day-to-day work they use tools that embody culturally responsive education as it relates to their own understanding of the mathematics that they teach. Thus, the MLWs were in an ideal position to provide feedback about the extent to which the items developed were culturally responsive.

Early Findings: While in assessment theory the idea of removing construct-irrelevant material in a test item is important, it is impossible to remove from the contents of an item the layers of social and cultural contexts that we inhabit in families and local communities, as well as in professional communities of researchers and educators. Through engagement with student voice, we identified item language and formats that were difficult for students to understand. A challenge in alleviating these difficulties is that providing additional clarification can also increase the reading load.

Products: Video 

Learning in Places (NSF #1720578)

PI: Carrie Tzou | Co-PIs: Megan Bang, Sharon Siehl
Grades: K-3
STEM Discipline: Ecology, Biology, Earth Science

Description: Seattle Public Schools, Tilth Alliance, the University of Washington, and Northwestern University partner with K-3 children, families,  educators, and community-based organizations to co-design equitable, culturally based, field-based science education utilizing outdoor habitats, including gardens. We are working to reimagine how children can engage in phenology motivated field-based science driven by “should we” questions that cultivates ethical deliberation and decision-making around socio-ecological systems and issues that are consequential to them, their families, and their communities.

Approach to Addressing Culturally Responsive STEM Education: We start from the assumption that all learning is cultural and that all learning shapes identity. By this we mean that we all have cultural ways of knowing and understanding the world around us, and how we learn shapes who we are and who we might become. Yet, science is often taught and designed in a way that treats the practices and places in which we do science as ahistorical, acultural, and unproblematic. Our project engages a diversity of voices⁠—students, families, teachers, and community-based organizations⁠—in co-designing what we call a “seasonal storyline” that engages learners and their families in field-based science that connects family knowledge and place-based, student-led investigations. The storyline begins with an exploration of what we call “socio-ecological histories of place”, where students and families explore the ways in which places have been and continue to be shaped by human decisions, from our earliest geologic time to Indigenous People’s time, to imagining the possible futures of places and our responsibilities to them. Students develop “should we” questions to learn about places across timescales and the layers of relations between human communities and the rest of the natural world to explore socio-ecological systems and decision-making. Through these investigations they come to understand the connection between field-based data and evidence, family and community practices and priorities, and place-based histories and futures. Finally, students share their "should we" questions with recommendations for decisions to peers and their families.

Early Findings: We have found that when co-designing with community-based organizations, teachers, and families, it is critically important to explicitly address issues of power, equity, and inequity, especially as they pertain to deficit perspectives of families of color and teaching science. Initial analyses point to the power of orienting students to sensemaking along multiple time and spatial scales: that, when asked to notice and wonder about places, they engage in more expansive thinking about how and why places come to be, and what scientific and engineering practices they could use to find out more about places.

Products: Teaching Tools

Strengthening STEM Teaching in Native American Serving Schools through Long-Term, Culturally Responsive Professional Development (NSF #1908464)

PI: Angelina Castagno | Co-PI: Pradeep Dass
Grades: K-12
STEM Discipline: All STEM disciplines (topics are determined by the teachers in our professional development program)
Target Populations: K-12 teachers in schools serving Indigenous youth

Description: We strengthen K-12 teaching in Indigenous-serving schools through professional development that increases teachers’ content knowledge and capacity to develop and deliver culturally responsive curriculum. With funding from NSF, we are able to offer STEM-specific professional development, and we are able to research the implementation, effectiveness, and opportunities for improvement in our work. Our program is currently a partnership with Navajo schools, but NSF support will allow us to include an additional Native Nation partner by 2021.

Approach to Addressing Culturally Responsive STEM Education: Our professional development model emphasizes (1) multi-grade and cross-content-area collaboration among teachers, (2) teacher-developed instructional units, and (3) culturally responsive approaches to STEM teaching. These innovations are particularly critical for teacher professional development efforts in Native-serving schools. Because of the rural context and large geographic distances between schools and communities where we work, teachers rarely have access to professional development, and what they do receive is generally district-led, short-term, and not content-specific. Teachers need and crave professional learning spaces that are collaborative, intellectually stimulating, and relevant. Furthermore, most teachers in reservation-based schools are constrained by either lack of curricular resources or mandates to use one-size-fits-all, scripted curriculum provided by their districts. In either case, it can be challenging for teachers to fully engage culturally responsive instructional practices. Our model addresses this challenge by supporting teachers in the development of self-authored instructional units that are aligned to state content standards and locally-articulated cultural standards. Finally, all of the instructional units developed by teachers in our program will be freely available online for broader access and impact.

Methodology: We are employing a collective case study design informed by Critical Indigenous Research Methodologies.

Key Challenge: One challenge in pursuing long-term partnerships with schools is that leadership changes can really impact the work. We have mitigated these impacts by cultivating teacher leaders within the communities where we work. Teacher leaders can provide consistency during formal leadership changes, as well as advocacy among key stakeholders in their communities. Of course, most teachers are already spread thin, so we have to be mindful and strategic about how we engage teacher leaders, what expectations we place on them, and how we can support them holistically.

Recommended Readings: Our work is a specific effort at cultural responsiveness with/in Indigenous communities. We recommend that educators and researchers seek out resources that are as specific to their context as possible. One size does not fit all. We also recommend seeking resources that are not only specific to STEM education. We have learned a lot from the broader literature on culturally responsive, relevant, sustaining, and revitalizing education in Indigenous-serving schools.

Products: Website

Additional Resources

Focusing on Cultural Competency in STEM Education
This CAISE report details the need for cultural competency and the spectrum of cultural competency and provides practical activities  to aid educators in creating a culturally active learning environment.

How to Avoid Known Pitfalls Associated with Culturally Responsive Instruction
This brief explains the importance of connecting science teaching to the cultural knowledge, experiences, and ways of knowing of students and their communities by attending to the historical and dynamic nature of culture, inherent variation within cultural communities, and issues of power and sovereignty that come with responsibly connecting to culture.

The Use of Theory in Research on Broadening Participation in PreK-12 STEM Education: Information and Guidance for Prospective DRK-12 Grantees
This CADRE resource for prospective DRK–12 grantees identifies some of the theories that current and recent DRK–12 grantees are using in their research on broadening participation, including culturally relevant pedagogy and other theories that can intersect with culturally responsive STEM education.


Ball, D. L. (1993). With an eye on the mathematical horizon: Dilemmas of teaching elementary school mathematics. The Elementary School Journal, 93(4), 373-397.

Bang, M., Douglas L. Medin, D. L., &  Atran, S. (2007). Cultural mosaics and mental models of nature. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 13868-74. doi:10.1073/pnas.0706627102

Brayboy, B. (2005). Toward a tribal critical race theory in education. Urban Review, 37, 425-446.

Gay, G. (1975). Organizing and designing culturally pluralistic curriculum. Educational Leadership, 33, 176–183.

Gay, G. (2013). Teaching to and through cultural diversity. Curriculum Inquiry, 43, 48–70. doi:10.1111/curi.12002 

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 43, 159–165. doi:10.1080/00405849509543675

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 465–491. doi:10.3102/00028312032003465

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84, 74–84.

Levin, D. M., Hammer, D., Elby, A., & Coffey, J. (2012). Becoming a responsive science teacher: Focusing on student thinking in secondary science. Arlington VA: NSTA Press.

Kana‘iaupuni, S. M. (2004). Ka‘akālai Kū Kanaka: A call for strengths-based approaches from a Native Hawaiian perspective. Educational Researcher, 33, 26-32.

Packer, M. J., & Goicoechea, J. (2000). Sociocultural and constructivist theories of learning: Ontology, not just epistemology. Educational Psychologist, 35, 227-241.

Robertson, A. D., Scherr, R. E., & Hammer, D. (Eds.) (2016). Responsive teaching in science and mathematics. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sewell, W. H., Jr. (1992). A theory of structure: duality, agency, and transformation. American Journal of Sociology, 98, 1-29.

Tuck, E., McKenzie, M., & McCoy, Kate. (2014). Land education: Indigenous, post-colonial, and decolonizing perspectives on place and environmental education research. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 1-23. doi:10.1080/13504622.2013.877708

Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8, 69-91, doi:10.1080/1361332052000341006