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STEM to the Future teaches students to apply their STEM knowledge to solving problems in their communities

Elementary Students Can Learn to Make the World a Better Place

Teaching students of color to apply their STEM education to solving real-world problems in their communities can help engage them in ways that traditional approaches do not.

June 9, 2023
Headshot of Jacob Adams, founder of STEM to the Future

Jacob Adams


Headshot of Jacob Adams, founder of STEM to the Future

Jacob Adams


It is our duty as adults to ensure that future generations are able to imagine and create a world where there’s an abundance of joy, hope, and opportunity. And as bell hooks said, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.”

As educators, we must combat systemic barriers to make our classrooms, schools, and programs spaces of radical possibility. We must teach in a way that produces thinkers, not just workers. A social justice approach to education equips youths to create an alternative future.

My first teaching job helped me see the need for a social justice approach to education. As a 2013 Teach For America corps member I was placed at a New York City charter school. My school was one of the highest performing schools in the state. Almost 100 percent of the students enrolled were Black and received free or reduced lunch. 

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The school is a highly influential institution. On any given day there would be 30 to 40 people observing our school culture and teaching practices for inspiration and ideas to take back to their communities. The school focused on efficient systems, strong compliance, and extremely high academic achievements. Sounds good, right? But while our kids were reading and doing math above grade level, I’d argue they weren’t learning how to think critically. They also weren’t learning about themselves, and they weren’t given opportunities to apply what they learned to support themselves or their community. Schools continuously prioritize academic outcomes while neglecting the social-emotional development of our youths. Regardless of test scores, students of color are not being afforded an education that honors the full context of their (Black and brown) lives. I remember that as a new teacher, I had a nagging feeling of, “If this place is a model for education, then we are all in trouble.” 

At the time, I was working with my TFA coach, who exposed me to critical pedagogy, an educational philosophy that educators should encourage learners to examine power structures and patterns of inequality through an awakening of critical consciousness in pursuit of freedom. Not only did my coach provide guidance, but she also referred me to a program through Teach For America New York, which allowed me to develop my own ideas of what education should look like. 

I believe it’s imperative that all kids learn in ways that allow them to design the world they deserve. That’s especially crucial given the persistent presence of systemic inequities, including racism and sexism, in our world.

I wanted to fill this gap between what students learn and its relevance to the world they will lead by bringing humanity back into education. That mission became the impetus of STEM to the Future (STTF).

I founded STTF in 2017 with the hope of creating an organization that can cultivate the brilliance of Black and brown youths in ways that benefit them and their community. Despite social norms about who can lead and who can make an impact, STEM to the Future realizes that race and age aren’t prerequisites for change. Even at high performing schools like the one where I taught, Black and brown youths’ brilliance and power are often untapped. STTF realizes this untapped power, redefining what education looks like by creating science, technology, engineering, art, and math—STEAM—programs grounded in social justice. The programs put education in the hands of students as young as 7, supporting them to develop solutions to real-world problems such as climate change, public safety, poverty, and beyond. We refine our curricula and liberatory approach to education through our school-based and after-school programs. We then use those learnings to train educators on how to cultivate and maintain joyful experiences that are student-led and connected to the needs of the community. 

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At STTF, we define social justice teaching as a learning experience that is student-led, involves critical analysis of social issues, and allows learners to actualize their individual and collective power. Students conduct research in the community to identify its strengths and concerns before working together to develop solutions to unmet needs. That work looks like students using robots they built to deliver PPE to elders during the early-pandemic stay-at-home orders, leveraging their fashion brand to earn more than $800 in four hours for the LGBTQ+ community, or hosting a Clean Air Day event where they created their own workshops to engage more than 50 community members on environmental justice issues. Through these types of experiences, our students are seeing that they have the power to create meaningful change for themselves and their communities. 

Not only is teaching through a social justice lens necessary for our freedom, it’s also just good teaching. Research by Dr. Ebony McGee and Lydia Bentley shows Black and Latinx students’ desire to use STEM to help others supersedes their financial motivations. Anecdotally, STTF programs back up this research. When students learn using our social justice framework they are more engaged, and they show higher levels of persistence and belonging. Black and brown kids are much more likely to come from collectivist cultures when compared to their white counterparts. Therefore, if we are to teach in a way that is responsive to our kids’ cultures, we should create lessons and units that provide youth with the opportunity to use what they learn to help their communities. 

Our kids are well aware that they are inheriting an unjust system, and they see how STEM can be used for the greater good of society. But it doesn’t have to stop at STEM. If we want to effectively engage Black and brown children, we must present all of our curricula (STEM and beyond) through a social justice lens that tangibly impacts their communities. When students are able to see how they can use their design skills to raise money for underserved communities or use their passion for cooking to feed their neighborhood—like we do at STTF—they are able to experience what it’s like to create change. This approach builds their sense of belonging within STEAM as they begin to make their alternative future a reality. 

The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.

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