• Addressing the inequity in STEM education

    Seeds to STEMs

  • Diversity in tech

    Over the past fifteen years, the number of tech sector jobs and college graduates in STEM fields has steadily risen. Despite this trend, the percentage of minorities in tech positions has stagnated.

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    Building communities

    In 2012-2013, Caucasian or Asian employees filled roughly 85% of positions across leading tech companies. Among leadership roles, the numbers are even more skewed towards Caucasian and Asian employees. One glaring example, which we will not name (but allows users to share messages under 140 characters), has no Latinos represented in its leadership positions.


    In recent years, there has been increased public pressure to address this issue. Companies have responded by publishing their demographic data and seeking ways to increase diversity among their employees. Many have called for a top-down approach: in order to address this issue, there must be a significant change in company cultures and hiring practices. Through changing the culture, minorities will ideally feel more comfortable pursuing tech careers. While this will certainly be a component of increasing diversity in the future, others have noticed that bottom-up solutions may also a significant piece of the puzzle.


    A different approach is to empower historically underrepresented communities by delivering quality education and opportunities to pursue STEM at an early age. Low-income and first-generation communities do not always have access to quality STEM education. As a result, many students do not feel confident or motivated to continue with STEM.

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  • A look at East Palo Alto

    Our program is designed for students at the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy

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    Staying local

    Any successful bottom-up solution to a problem must be localized to whatever context it is being applied. At the outset of this project, we were approached by the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, a charter school located in East Palo Alto, California. The program discussed below is specifically tailored for EPAPA.

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    East Palo Alto

    East Palo Alto is a vibrant, ethnically diverse community of predominantly Latino, African-American, and Pacific Islander populations situated in San Mateo County. East Palo Alto is a world apart culturally and economically from its neighbors of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Unemployment is high and residents often commute to low-paying jobs outside of the community, trying to make ends meet.


    Despite being located in the heart of Silicon Valley, East Palo Alto is a community that largely missed the prosperity and benefits from the dot-com boom of the 1990s and the growth of the tech sector since that time. The median household income in East Palo Alto is around $50,000, as opposed to $122,000 in the neighboring city of Palo Alto. Only 16% of residents of East Palo Alto over the age of 25 hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, as opposed to 80% in Palo Alto (and 30% across California). Latinos compose roughly 65% of the population in East Palo Alto.

  • The Palo Altos


    Median household income in East Palo Alto


    Median household income in Palo Alto


    Percentage of residents of East Palo Alto over 25 holding a Bachelor's degree or higher


    Percentage of residents of East Palo Alto over 25 holding a Bachelor's degree or higher

  • East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy

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    The East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy (EPAPA) is a charter school located in East Palo Alto dedicated to preparing its students for success in college and beyond. EPAPA now serves over 300 students and boasts a 100% college acceptance rate for its graduates. In a community where 20% of high school students of color graduate college eligible and there exists a 60% college dropout rate, EPAPA offers a unique opportunity for students in East Palo Alto to access quality education and to be prepared for secondary education.

  • EPAPA demographics

    EPAPA largely serves minority, low-income, first-generation students


    of students are Latino


    of students speak English as a second language


    of students participate in the free and reduced price meal program


    of students will be first-generation college students

  • EPAPA has managed to create an environment where students can thrive despite these challenges. The Phoenix Academy receives significantly less per-pupil state funding compared to nearby schools, but maintains higher math and English and language arts proficiency among socio-economically disadvantaged students than nearby competing schools. By making each dollar count, the Phoenix Academy has been successful in its goal of preparing and sending all of its graduates to four-year college or university programs.

  • Making limited dollars go farther

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    Per pupil funding and math proficiency versus nearby schools

    Despite receiving significantly less funding than nearby schools, students of EPAPA able to succeed 

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  • The science communication problem

    Success beyond graduation

    Despite EPAPA being a haven for students highly motivated students in East Palo Alto, the faculty and staff are facing several challenges in ensuring their graduates’ success beyond graduation. Only 3-7% of students of color in Silicon Valley pursue careers in STEM related fields. Just 64 percent of Latino teens owned a computer in 2012, compared to 81 percent of white teens. With relatively limited resources, EPAPA has been dedicated to providing quality technology and science related courses that allow their students to practice the computer and technology skills necessary for college and beyond.

    Building interest in STEM

    According to the staff at EPAPA, “[w]hile 100% of EPAPA students are accepted to 4-year colleges, few are pursuing STEM related careers and many students are not adequately building the technology computer skills necessary for college or acquiring the motivation and confidence to pursue STEM related majors and careers.” The Phoenix Academy has attempted to address this issue by launching a STEM initiative that involves bringing in two full-time science teachers, technology software for integrated online learning, and laptops for students. In addition to these efforts, our project is seeking innovative ways to build interest in STEM among EPAPA students.


    At the outset of this project, members of the Phoenix Academy staff approached the authors with the following question:


    “How can we communicate the value of STEM to parents?”


    To begin investigating this problem, we conducted qualitative research that involved surveys, interviews and on-site observation. Surveys were handed out to three freshman classes, and several areas of interest became apparent:

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    Knowledge gaps lead to lack of interest

    One of the most common themes throughout the surveys was the lack of knowledge of what STEM, in particular technology and computer science, really is. Over 82 percent of the students surveyed reporting knowing little to nothing about computer science. The remaining 18 percent expressed a very minimal, if incorrect, understanding of the discipline. When asked what career they would choose, 10 percent of students mentioned medical professions (such as nurse, doctor, or veterinarian), and only one student mentioned pursuing a career in tech. Nearly 90 percent of students expressed no interest in pursuing a STEM related career. A very common trend was that students that expressed little to no knowledge about computer science and technology also expressed, understandably, little to no interest in pursuing a STEM related career.


    Several students noted that they were open to learning about tech and computer science because “it’s nice to learn new things.” This suggests that many students possess an appreciation for learning that should be capitalized on when designing a solution to this problem.

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    Use of technology does not translate to interest in technology

    Another insight from these surveys was the fact that even though many students were immersed in technology in their daily lives, they were still uninterested in learning more about technology or STEM. Around 70 percent of students noted they used technology extensively and had a generally positive view towards technology. The fraction of students interested in pursuing a career in STEM was nowhere this number, and there did not appear to be a trend that students that used technology extensively were more interested in pursuing tech careers.

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    Lack of confidence in one’s own STEM abilities or general distaste towards STEM

    When asked to describe their general feelings towards Math and Science, many students reported feeling frustration and disappointment. Students that reported that they struggled in these areas generally held less positive views on the subjects. Many believed that computer science is very math-oriented, and thus feel that they are unlikely to pursue it further because they are doubtful of their own math ability. That said, a sizeable portion of students reported positive views towards science because “we get to try new things” and experiment. This suggests that the excitement of experimentation and invention is something that must also be captured in order for these students to truly enjoy and value their STEM education.

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    Lack of Role Models in the STEM community

    Another area of interest was the lack of STEM-related role models. Around one third of students named a celebrity (singer, actor, athlete, etc.) as their role model. Around 40 percent of students named a family member (mother, father, or aunt/uncle) as their role model. This provides an interesting connection back to the original question posed by the EPAPA staff: since so many students look towards their family members for advice and guidance in their lives, if these people express positive views towards STEM it is more likely that the students will also see the value of STEM. Shockingly, around 30 percent of students said that they had no role model. This data suggests that building relatable role models in STEM fields could have a big impact on these students’ interest and motivation to pursue STEM.

  • This research suggested to us that the original question posed by the staff at EPAPA (how can we communicate the value of STEM to parents?) may not be the real question we would like to address. It seems as though this problem is simply one component of the much larger and more direct issue:


    How can we communicate the value of STEM to students?


    As we shift our focus towards addressing this question, we were also able to take several key insights with us as we design a solution to address this problem:

    • We must address the knowledge gap that exists. If students do not have the information in the first place, they cannot make informed decisions. 
    • We must capitalize on the fact that students are already immersed in technology to build an interest in STEM. 
    • It is important to build students’ confidence in their STEM abilities so they feel prepared to pursue STEM further. 
    • Building relatable role models in STEM areas will be essential in make students feel comfortable in joining the STEM community. All of these points form the foundation of our design.
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    Seeds to STEMs

  • Seeds to STEMs (STS)

    Seeds to STEMs is a long-term, interactive, educational program that connects EPAPA students with Stanford students, offering them exposure to STEM opportunities and careers. By providing each EPAPA student with a Stanford undergrad mentor, we offer guidance, support, and a strong network for EPAPA students considering pursuing STEM.


    STS will take place over 6 sessions over the course of the school year. Sessions will meet outside of school, and will be around 3 hours each. Each session will include some time for students and mentors to converse and catch up, and time for an interactive activity or workshop on some STEM related topic. The types of activities we will offer students are:

    • Workshop on some STEM topic led by an employee from nearby tech company
    • Workshop on some STEM topic led by a Stanford professor
    • Workshop, panel, or Q&A session run by Stanford students in STEM or mentors
    • Visit nearby tech company or Stanford campus
    • Trip to museums, Exploratorium in San Francisco
    Sessions will be designed to capture the interest and attention of students for the whole time. The emphasis will be on providing students with something valuable to take home with them, whether that be interest and relevant information on a STEM topic, something they have built in a workshop session, or new connections and friends in the STEM community.
    Students and mentors will be required to attend all sessions, and will receive a certificate upon completion of the program. Students and mentors are encouraged to maintain ongoing communication outside of the sessions. The program is designed to minimize commitment for both the mentors and the students, while maximizing the value provided to the students.  

    Research guiding program

    STS is designed to expose students to STEM career opportunities and topics. The goals of STS are:

    1. Provide students with educational, exciting, and relevant knowledge to pique interest in STEM
    2. Allow students to develop relatable role models in STEM community, whether it be the mentors or guest speakers
    3. Leave students with something to be proud of, building confidence in their STEM abilities

    These goals exactly mirror the key ideas we found in our qualitative research. In this sense, we hope the program is comprehensive enough to give students a sense of the value of STEM, and to inspire, motivate, and empower students to pursue STEM beyond graduation.

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