“That Ain’t Right”
Addressing Inequities in STEM Education

08 Feb 2022

Higher level courses such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes can serve as a catalyst to enhance student achievement, confidence and motivation as well as seed overall better outcomes beyond high school. They can also serve as gatekeepers and rob many underrepresented students of opportunity. One determining factor is making sure all students feel welcome and like they belong.

Eriq Hearn, High School Physics Teacher

The following was written by Eriq Hearn, a physics teacher and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Hearn was selected by National Math + Science Institute, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2020-2021 school year.

In 2015, I participated in an interdisciplinary project attempting to make a sensor that could record and report different variables of ecological value. Sounds cool, huh? Even though I was definitely the least skilled team member in coding and engineering, I was still able to contribute to the group’s success. I didn’t feel like I necessarily belonged, but my teammates were encouraging and constantly reminded me that I did belong. My team and the professors were a great support system that boosted my confidence. I treasure that experience—one of being pushed to grow.

Fast forward to 2018 when I attended professional development training for an advanced physics program that was soon to be my responsibility for implementing. I felt intimidated as the lone biology major surrounded by seemingly lifelong physicists. We were working through some sample problems and… I was stumped. I felt my insecurities creep up and like I didn’t belong again. But “hey” I thought, “They’ll help me out and make me feel like I do belong, right?” My teammates talked fast to one another and made matter-of-fact statements as I sat there, puzzled.

I made it known that I needed help understanding. Some ignored me. Some looked at me, wondering how I didn’t know the content that well. I eventually got an abbreviated explanation due to time constraints which didn’t help much. I left knowing that I did not want to be in the same room with those people again. Ever.

I am describing a basic human experience. We all want to feel like we belong—a sense of belonging can make us want to succeed. A lack of it makes us want to leave. Therefore, it’s important for educators to think about the messages they are sending to students and parents. Who belongs?

Bringing More

Advanced placement (AP) opportunities seemed revolutionary when we increased their availability at our school in 2019. We felt that AP would bring higher earning opportunities to all students in the building, not just the “honors kids.” Hey, a school with more AP classes is most likely better for it right? It would be crazy to think that bringing more rigor to the building also meant bringing more inequity along with it, right?

Disappointingly, the AP classes became strictly feeder classes for our honors program. To make matters worse, our honors program didn’t end up reflecting the school’s population of lower income Black and brown students. So of course students would not feel as if they belonged. How did we get here? Why aren’t more students taking AP classes?

Higher level courses such as AP or International Baccalaureate classes can serve as a catalyst to enhance student achievement, confidence and motivation as well as seed overall better outcomes beyond high school. They can also serve as a gatekeepers and rob many underrepresented students of opportunity.

In my experience, for underrepresented students to feel a sense of belonging “at the table,” educators must be proactive in ensuring their school invites everyone to participate in higher learning opportunities, like how my colleagues helped me feel cared for which kept me engaged in the sensor project. My teammates listened, shared their knowledge and consistently encouraged me to keep learning.

How can we build more equitable opportunities for students of color in science education? Identify factors in your community and/or school that are sustaining inequity. Do students of color in your school or community have access to the following:

  • Science teachers who look like them?
  • Supplies (and space) to engage in inquiry-based labs?
  • Qualified math, science, engineering or computer science teachers with access to professional development?
  • Guidance counselors who present students with their options to meet potential career goals?
  • Teachers who provide rigor in the classroom setting?
  • Teachers who encourage a growth mindset?

Once we’ve identified problems, change can occur. I look forward to the day when all students can feel welcome at the STEM table. Let’s talk about your school. Who matters?


Eriq Hearn is a high school physics teacher (AP/IB) at the Academy of Richmond County in Augusta, Georgia, where he also teaches the Theory of Knowledge. Part of a military family, he lived overseas while growing up and attended several DoD schools. He received a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in teaching from Augusta University in 2015 and was recognized as Teacher of the Year in 2019.


The National Math + Science Initiative (NMSI) works to expand access to challenging coursework and improve student achievement through proven programs that consistently produce measurable and lasting results. NMSI partners with schools and districts nationwide to provide extraordinary training, support and resources for teachers and students. NMSI’s College Readiness Program for Military Families provides military-connected students with well-trained teachers, challenging AP coursework and a strong foundation in STEM subjects that will prepare them for the rigors of college and career, whether military or civilian. For more information, visit nms.org.