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Social an cultural capital: the heart of stem success.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are the heart and lifeblood of today's learning and economic stability. STEM encompasses all walks of life, as technology and its different applications permeate all disciplines--not just those listed above. McAllister (2014) posits, "We need all students believing that STEM is at the root of public service, personal freedom, creativity, and belonging, because that's exactly what it is" (para. 2). To be successful in any area such as the arts, social sciences, mathematics, or engineering, today's learner must learn the nuanced language of STEM (McAllister, 2014). Many learners characterize STEM as very hard, boring, or for geeks only. Educators must strive to instill in all students that mathematics, science, and especially rapidly developing technological advances are at the heart of our society; they are the threads that make up the tapestry of our society and economic standing.

21st century skills

The 21st Century Skills structure promoted by well-known organizations and websites (P21, ASCD, NEA, et al.) is dedicated to listing the necessary skills for success in the workplace. There are some common threads across the studies as listed below:

* Creativity and Innovation

* Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

* Communication

* Collaboration

* Career and Life Skills

* Information Management

* Effective Use of Technology

* Cultural and Social Awareness (Beers, 2013)

These skills are not markedly different from what educators have always tried to instill in their learners. Locke's article in 1944 implored educators to "go beyond the mere descriptive knowledge of other cultures to an appreciative understanding," and "have a new basic scholarship for these times--a new social learning for a new age" (p. 381). The focal points of 21st Century Skills in this article are career and life skills (encompassing other 21st Century Skills) and cultural/social awareness.

social capital

Stolle-McAllister (2011) provides a definition of social capital as a person's acquaintances and social networks; the more prestigious and well developed, the more capital one has (as cited in Bourdieu, 1986). She also stated that it relies on trustworthiness and comes about through nurturing relationships with others who facilitate action in their networks (Stolle-McAllister, 2011 as cited in Coleman, 1988). Social capital is a learned behavior and best developed in diverse group settings. Ensuring that today's learners develop skills in building community in diverse groups is key to future success in STEM. Students need academic and social challenges to build strong support systems with their fellow learners. Social capital gives students a toolkit of skills to understand, manage, or resolve concerns encountered while learning. These tools assist in understanding real-world applications as well as prepare students for the workplace requirements for collaboration, communication, and information management. Another important construct is group accountability and responsibility--in education and the workplace. Strong social capital helps "students realize they are not in competition with each other, but are working together to improve themselves as a group as well as individuals" (Stolle-McAllister, 2011, p. 16). Students learn to collaborate through shared projects, classwork, and group study, "making...connections with other people who have the same ideas as you, or some that even have different ideas from you" (Morganson, Major, Streets, Litano, and Myers, 2015, p. 355). Social-capital skills equip learners to be immersive problem solvers, building "a culture of inquiry in which asking and answering their own questions becomes the centerpiece of the learning process" (Beers, 2013). This culture of critical inquiry assists learners in understanding the impact of their solutions or (re)actions to situations and allows for analyzing their conclusions.

social issues

A pervasive social issue for today's learners is the societal acceptance of stating that one is bad at math! McAllister (2014) reports that "53% of Americans aged 18 to 35 often admit that they can't do math. It is not OK to say, "I'm not good at reading or talking," but it is OK to say, "I'm not good at math" (para. 3).

Parental influence is key to ensuring that all students understand STEM and its career options. Most parents rely on knowledge of careers from their own educational pursuits, community knowledge, or even television programs. STEM careers have developed exponentially in the past decade, and constant educating of students, parents, and teachers is necessary to ensure that learners understand the vast opportunities available in STEM areas.

Gender bias for certain STEM careers is still prevalent, but these barriers are becoming fewer for most learners. According to EDTech's STEM survey, "social and cultural protocols prevent many of these students [girls and minorities] from pursuing STEM opportunities according to 41% of respondents" (Namahoe, 2015, para. 4). When asked what factors contribute to these gaps, the top three responses were, "Lack of exposure to role models, 15%; Not enough programs targeting these students, 14%; and Social and cultural barriers that discourage students from pursuing these fields, 41% (Namahoe, 2015, para. 8).

cultural capital

The concepts of cultural and social capital are interreliant. This capital, also called informational, includes educational credentials as well as verbal facility, cultural awareness, and ability to navigate the educational system and processes (Stolle-McAllister, 2011). In a broader sense, cultural capital includes social class attributes and indicators of social status such as dress and social deportment (Stolle-McAllister, 2011). Enhancing cultural capital for STEM learners includes developing a scientific awareness and comfort level in meeting with role models and mentors in STEM fields. For STEM educators, it is easy to shape cultural capital through community partnerships and role models who perpetuate "the norms of their professional fields" (Stolle-McAllister, 2011).

Assisting students with navigating the educational process in secondary and post-secondary education is not solely the responsibility of the counselors or parents. Providing insight to college careers, classroom rules, and social decorum ensures that students possess the social and educational skills to succeed.

For underserved populations, the concept of positive marginality (Unger, 1988) appears to enhance rather than detract from their self-efficacy as a role model in STEM. These individuals understand that the barriers are the results of structural processes (e.g., discrimination) and not of one's personal inadequacy (Morganson, et al., 2015). STEM educators in secondary education have unique opportunities to promote this concept by encouraging students to understand that STEM means "they can create things that change the world" and they will enjoy STEM projects that have real-life meanings and implications (McAllister, 2014).

Tap into students' creative and caring yearnings by using real-world global issues. Global citizenship is more than a popular phrase; it is a reality for many in the 21st Century workplace. STEM applications for real-world projects reinforce global connections and a sense of community. STEM learners will begin to understand that their decisions in addressing issues affect more than just themselves and their community, but can have an impact globally. Locke (1944) noted, "Knowledge of other peoples and cultures"..."will issue only from...insight into other cultures as will generate mutual respect and tolerance" (p. 382).

cultural issues

Cultural issues are as varied as the many cultures we have in the United States and globally. Being receptive, open, and keen to learn about others without bias is pivotal to overcoming cultural issues. In 1944, Locke warned, "We must "giv[e] up our own cultural egotism, with its chauvinistic provincialisms ... to become one among many ... to achieve workable unity which the new world situation demands" (p. 381). Although written more than 72 years ago, these cultural words of advice still ring true.

Cultural divides such as gender, ethnicity, and race still raise barriers for many students in achieving STEM careers. STEM educators must cautiously ensure that their lessons are culturally inclusive, as research shows this helps students raise their test scores and understand how education applies to issues of social justice (Eglash, Gilbert, and Foster, 2013).


Social and cultural capital are tools all students need for success in our ever-changing workplace. STEM students are lucky to experience scenarios that develop their 21st Century skills along with the basic tenets of STEM education (Beers, 2013). STEM classrooms need to immerse students in problem-solving processes, encourage innovation and creativity, and foster an environment of collaboration and communication. STEM careers provide the best of all worlds for our students--they develop the "capital" (social, cultural, and monetary) they need for future self-efficacy and contributions to society.


Beers, S. Z. (2013). 21st century skills: Preparing students for their future. STEM: Science, technology, engineering, math. Retrieved from century_skills.pdf

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J.G. Richards (Ed.) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-58). New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Coleman, J. (1988). Social capital on the creation of human capital. The American Journal of Sociology, 94(Supplement, S95-S120.

Locke, A. (1944, March). Educational Leadership. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Eglash, R., Gilbert, J. E., & Foster, E. (2013). Broadening participation: Toward culturally responsive computer education. Communications of the ACM, 56(7), 33-36.

McAllister, Barbara. (2014, February 14). The heart of STEM education. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from

Morganson, V. J., Major, D. A., Streets, V. N., Litano, M. L., & Myers, D. P. (2015) Using embeddedness theory to understand and promote persistence in STEM majors. Career Development Quarterly, 63(4), 348-362. doi: 10.1002/cdq. 12033.

Namahoe, K. (2015, September 30). Survey: Social, cultural barriers discourage STEM pursuits among girls, minorities. Retrieved from http://smartblogs.eom/education/2015/09/30/ survey-social-cultural-barriers-discourage-stem-pursuitsamong-girls-minorities/

Stolle-McAllister, K. (2011, Fall). The case for summer bridge: Building social and cultural capital for talented black STEM students. Science Educator, 20(2), 12-22.

Virginia R. Jones, Ph.D. is Dean of Technology and Learning Resources at Rappahannock Community College. She can be reached at
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Author:Jones, Virginia R.
Publication:Children's Technology and Engineering
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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