“Science is more than a school subject, or the periodic table or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world.”

In this quote, President Barack Obama brings to light the fact that learning in science, technology, engineering and math (S.T.E.M.) plays an enormous role in our world today. Making S.T.E.M. education accessible to all groups and kinds of students is a work in progress; however, researchers at UC Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education (GSEE) are investigating ways to close the gap between S.T.E.M. education and underrepresented students, specifically those with learning disabilities.

Professor Michael Gerber, associate professor Michael Gottfried and assistant professor Diana J. Arya, all of whom are from GGSE invited leading scholars and educators from across the U.S. and Canada to participate in “Advancing Individual Differences Research on STEM learning opportunities: A National Conference.” A variety of fields were represented in presentations and discussions related to the neglect of and potential actions for individuals with learning disabilities in S.T.E.M. education.

Researchers in special education, literacy, policy, organization and history were present at the conference that took place from Jan. 13-15. In addition, S.T.E.M. educators in math, science and engineering attended. Kindergarten through 12th grade was represented, and issues in higher education were addressed.

According to Arya, bringing in such diversity to the conference is beneficial.

“[There are] different kinds of information that we get depending on how we research the issues of S.T.E.M. education and underrepresented populations. We see our work as complementary for gaining a full understanding the issues and potential resources, and also moving forward to new research opportunities. We learn so much when investigating small groups or single cases, and we also gain valuable information from large-scale investigations. So, all the information we get from such varied practices informs each other’s understanding on these issues,” Arya said.

With the federal government creating efforts to improve S.T.E.M. education, this conference, funded by the American Educational Research Association, is another step in the process that makes S.T.E.M. education accessible for students who are traditionally underrepresented — particularly students with individual differences.

“Really, S.T.E.M. is for all of us,” Arya said. “We’re living in a scientific age. Exposing all students to stem issues and education helps our entire society to become more knowledgeable and critical consumers of scientific knowledge.”

Data from the Obama administration reveals that 81 percent of Asian-American high school students and 71 percent of white high school students attend a school where the full range of math and science courses are offered. The percentages drop significantly for students of other backgrounds.

“Ultimately, research will focus on: ‘How can we make these experiences more accessible so that all kids have an equal chance at learning?’” Gottfried, co-organizer of the event, said.

While the National Science Foundation has been turning its attention to programs that support students with individual differences, Arya also believes that early childhood exposure increases the likelihood of developing interests in S.T.E.M.

“What helps is early, early, early, exposure to S.T.E.M. The earlier we start in a child’s experience, the more likely they are going to want to pursue an education in S.T.E.M.,” Arya said.

It will definitely take time for educators and researchers to come up with ways on how to close the gap between a S.T.E.M. education and student differences in learning. However, Arya has hope for the future.

“I think that there are different ways that we can study the problem and we’re planning for future conferences that will facilitate even deeper discussions about potential programs and projects,” Arya said. “There are new ways in which we capture and study large-scale data and there are continued ways we can study on a more micro-scale. As we develop new ways to engage in research, maybe we can get real solids facts on what particular funds of knowledge and resources are crucial for supporting a S.T.E.M. identity, a S.T.E.M. study pursuit, regardless of cultural, linguistic or learning differences.”

A version of this story appeared on p. 14 of the Thursday, Feb. 11 print edition of the Daily Nexus.