How to Foster Belonging in HS STEM

As part of 100Kin10’s work toward achieving the first moonshot goal of preparing 100,000 new, excellent STEM teachers, we brought partners together to focus on achieving equity in high school STEM. This was one of the highest leverage catalysts found in our Grand Challenges map. Specifically, we sought to make high school STEM courses more relevant, connected to career, and equitable.

To identify the next 10-year goal, 100Kin10 listened to nearly 600 young people – particularly those who have been and continue to be excluded from STEM – via the unCommission. In order to succeed in STEM, young people voiced the need to feel that they belong in STEM, and they overwhelmingly cited teachers as the most powerful force toward fostering that sense of belonging. This finding, and subsequent research into belonging, has informed our 10-year goal and the future direction of the network

A focus on belonging, specifically in the context of high school STEM, will serve to simultaneously address many of the challenges that prevent us from achieving equity. In fact, many of the factors we found to promote belonging directly connect to issues raised in our Shifting Courses: Achieving Equity in HS STEM report. As a network, we remain fiercely committed to advancing equity in high school STEM; working to foster belonging for our Black, Latinx, and Native American students is a critical piece that will allow us to make real progress. 

The research on belonging revealed that fostering belonging is not passive, but something that institutions do. Feelings of belonging can be impacted by intentional work around:

- Instructional practices, like the norms, pedagogical tactics, and social dynamics in classrooms

- Institutional structures, including state, district, and school policies, laws, and regulations that impact a student and teacher’s experience in the classroom

- Mindsets, with belonging being a muscle, skillset, or belief system that enables feeling comfort in oneself and navigating changing external factors and settings

- Teacher belonging, as teachers can best foster belonging for their students when they experience belonging themselves.

We will take a deeper dive into each of these four factors and the intersection with achieving equity in high school STEM. We invite you, as you’re reading, to think about the ways in which you and your colleagues might incorporate these learnings into your own practice, and, potentially commit to our next shared goal (see more on this at the end)! 

Instructional Practices

Impacting instructional practices is one of the key ways to foster belonging in high school STEM classrooms. In our Shifting Courses report we noted that high school STEM courses are failing to capture students’ interest. By impacting not only the content that gets taught, but the ways in which it is taught, we can both foster belonging and promote equity in high school STEM by ensuring coursework and instructional strategies are relevant and applicable to a 21st century context. 

High School STEM Content

“Exciting and relevant content” has been found to increase students’ sense of belonging; when teachers clearly and passionately connect content to real life, it can help make meaning for students and lead to a sense of belonging in the subject area. Coursework that connects to students’ interests and is relevant to their lives and passions not only promotes a sense of belonging, but is linked to students’ engagement and ultimate success in STEM, particularly for Black, Latinx, and Native American students.

Some of the ways to promote belonging also address challenges to ensuring relevant coursework and promoting equity in high school STEM. STEM courses can more explicitly address the relevance of the content to the real-world and provide students with opportunities to learn and practice skills in workforce-related contexts.

Several 100Kin10 Project Teams have begun the work of fostering belonging by helping teachers to make their content more exciting and relevant. The Unconventional STEM Career Pathways (2021) Community created a toolkit to support high school STEM teachers to meaningfully highlight and engage students around unconventional STEM career pathways, particularly to ensure access to these careers for students from underrepresented groups.

Additionally, The Standards for Culturally Relevant Mathematical Practice and Inquiry (2020) Project Team, worked to adapt the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice through the lenses of culturally relevant teaching and social justice mathematics. They arrived at a subset of five practices that are inspiring, humanizing, and joyful -- showing the work of liberation and education as inextricably married. 

High School STEM Pedagogies

Not only does the content of what gets taught in high school STEM classes matter, but how it is taught can serve to both foster belonging and promote equity. In our belonging research we found that the use of culturally affirming pedagogy can be powerful when teachers encourage students of color to explore their racial identity and to understand the value of their cultural heritage. In addition, we know from our catalyst research that pedagogies that center project-based learning correlate with greater student interest in STEM, self-efficacy, and intrinsic motivation to pursue STEM.  

Therefore, incorporating these kinds of culturally affirming and project-based pedagogies into our high school STEM courses can both promote belonging and addressing challenges to equity. To this end, schools and teachers can reach out to support families to become partners in their children’s education as a way to get to know their students and learn about their cultural backgrounds, identities, and contexts; this is essential in order for teachers to incorporate culturally affirming and project-based pedagogies in their classrooms.

Several 100Kin10 Project Teams have begun work to advance pedagogies that support both belonging and equity in high school STEM. The Developing Strategies to Advance Personally Relevant Pedagogy (2018) Project Team worked to promote learning environments where the linking of content to context becomes a primary pathway towards academic growth. You can download the write-up of this team's final project, which includes examples, exercises, and tools to implement and increase understanding of PRP.

The Social Justice through Critical STEM Pedagogy (2021) Project Team, that began as the Statistical Literacy, Computational Thinking, and Social Justice (2021) Community of Conversation, worked to specifically address making STEM content exciting and relevant by taking a social justice approach. They created a kit of practical tools for STEM teachers to use as they design learning experiences and implement pedagogies that will lead students to change the world in equitable and personally relevant ways. 

Institutional Structures 

Another key way to foster belonging in high school STEM is to move beyond individual classrooms and impact the larger institutional structures that often influence what goes on in schools and classrooms. 

Curricular Materials

Curricular materials are typically selected at the school or district level, and, if the curricula selected is both academically rigorous and culturally affirming it can impact students’ sense of belonging. This is particularly important in high school STEM, as our catalyst research also found that teachers need “quality, vetted curricular materials…to support personally-relevant, career-connected STEM courses" (Shifting Courses: Achieving Equity in HS STEM, p. 30). Especially given the demands placed on teachers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers must be given access to high quality materials that do not require them to spend time outside of school to design courses, write their own curriculum, or revise materials. 

To promote belonging and equity in high school STEM courses, we encourage curriculum developers to improve materials for STEM courses by building or expanding upon materials “to create coherent and teacher-friendly STEM resources that include applied instructional methods such as project-based learning” (Shifting Courses: Achieving Equity in HS STEM, p. 30) as well as to design materials for new courses that might be more integrated, applied, and project-based.

Texas-based 100Kin10 Project Team, Empowering Teachers to Close STEM Opportunity Gaps with a Culturally Responsive Education Toolkit (2021), worked to address this challenge and promote belonging by proving curricular resources and examples of lessons that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, and lived experiences of all high school students. 

Teacher Demographics

Our research into belonging found that students of color feel a greater sense of belonging when they have teachers with whom they share a racial and cultural identity. Through the unCommission, Black, Native American, and LGBTQ storytellers were twice as likely to talk about feeling belonging through identifying with their teachers’ race or gender than others. However, even though students of color make up a majority of the public-school aged population, only 20% of the current teaching workforce identify as teachers of color, with only 2% of teachers being Black men.

Impacting the diversity of the teacher pipeline is particularly important, then, to foster belonging in high school STEM, as our catalyst research highlighted that not only is there a shortage of effective STEM educators, but “90 percent of districts serving large populations of African-American and Latin[x] students, report difficulties recruiting and retaining certified, knowledgeable STEM teachers…attracting and retaining enough qualified teachers to teach applied and/or advanced STEM courses, particularly in schools serving largely students of color, is a significant barrier to access to these courses" (Shifting Courses: Achieving Equity in HS STEM, p. 27). Given what we have learned about the impact of teachers of color on belonging for students of color in STEM, we must not only prioritize ending the STEM teacher shortage, but specifically focus on preparing and retaining Black, Latinx, and Native American STEM teachers (for more information, read about our “representation” goal for 100Kin10’s next decade here).

Many in the 100Kin10 network are already doing incredible work toward this end. The Diversifying the STEM Teacher Pipeline (2019-2020) Project Team explored recruitment and pre-service support strategies for teachers of color with the goal of increasing the diversity of the STEM teacher pipeline in ways that are both scalable and sustainable, creating a public website and hosting a virtual conference in 2020 for organizations committed to the recruitment, preparation, and retention of teachers of color.

The Rethinking Intro to Education through a Racial Equity and Justice Lens (2021 - 2022) Project Team explored how redesigning a general introduction to education course to focus on issues of racial equity and justice might appeal to a broader audience and bring more students of color into the teaching field. Several members of this team received a mini-grant to continue their work with faculty members who will pilot the course this fall.


Belonging mindsets, beliefs, and racial consciousness in teachers and other adults working in the education system can be cultivated, and these mindsets can have a strong impact on student sense of belonging. In high school STEM, this is encouraging, as we have found that not only does tracking based on accountability measures limit course opportunities for students of color, but persistent racial bias on the part of educators and administrators can limit access as well. 

Unfortunately, there are still teacher attitudes and beliefs that resist embracing and building upon the cultural, racial/ethnic, and gender diversity in our nation’s classrooms. Research shows that many teachers engage in deficit-based and fixed-mindset thinking about their students, often due to social biases they may not even be aware of holding. The Addressing Implicit Bias in the Classroom (2019) Project Team developed a strong perspective about how to raise educator awareness of bias in STEM classrooms, explore its effects, and interrupt it. 

Teacher Belonging

Our belonging research found that creating positive work environments is a powerful way to ensure that teachers experience belonging themselves in their workplaces and can, therefore, support them to foster belonging for their students. In addition to valuing teachers and respecting their expertise (some of the things we know from our Work Environment catalyst work), offering robust, collaborative professional learning opportunities can be a way to create teacher belonging and therefore promote student belonging. In high school STEM, this is key, as our catalyst research found that current teacher professional learning opportunities do not build the knowledge and capacity needed to deliver the kind of high-quality STEM courses we know foster belonging and promote equity.

The 100Kin10 Project Team Preparing Teachers for High-Needs Schools (2018) engaged in dialogue about strategies to increase the desire to serve students in high-needs schools, and how they have prepared teacher candidates for the context-specific needs of schools and students in high-needs urban and rural settings. Check out a webinar about this team's work.

The Instructional Strategies that Promote Classroom Equity (2021) Project Team focused on Equity-Oriented Professional Learning Experiences. They note that “to cultivate a sense of belonging among students it is important for educators to continually examine and monitor the strategies they are using, their effectiveness, and evaluate them for equity,” and recommend as an action step that “educators can come together and identify equitable practices that inspire confidence, joy, curiosity, and opportunity for students to show their brilliance.”

Ready for a next step?

We’d love to partner with you to help ensure students feel a sense of belonging in their high school STEM classroom, and hope that this post has given you some tangible ideas!

We recently launched our process for organizations to make a commitment to our next shared goal, which sits at the intersection of belonging and the STEM teacher shortage. We know that significant work remains to end the STEM teacher shortage in a way that centers the needs of those who have been, and continue to be, most excluded from STEM, especially Black, Latinx, and Native American young people – including ensuring that high school STEM courses are taught in equitable, culturally-affirming, and engaging ways. 

We will be accepting commitments from organizations to help us reach our shared goal on a rolling basis through August 8. You can check out this deck that shares more context, details about the commitment, and partnership expectations; as well as this guide with everything you need to know to apply, and a starting space to work on your commitment.