Equity in STEM - Changing Perceptions About What it Takes to Succeed

“Dr. Flanigan, I really wanted to be in your academy, but I'm not smart and my mama said she couldn't pay for the computer if something happened to it."


“I was crushed. I vowed to never have another student say or feel that.”


Dr. Jeff Flanigan, principal of the STEM Academy at Jonesboro High School, Jonesboro Arkansas talks about starting the academy and the importance of challenging perceptions of both adults and children. “When we began the Academy journey at Jonesboro, STEM was by far the smallest of the three academies. We only had 173 students while our other two academies had over four and five hundred enrolled. We had many of the top students in the initial graduating class. In the first class, several of our students were in the top ten graduates and for the first time in school history, there was a five-way tie for top student. We were happy to have such high achieving students but the academy counselor and I were not pleased with the “optics” of our academy. We were a predominately white, male academy. We had less than 15% female enrollment and less than 15% minority. We were the only academy to give every student a MacBook Air computer. We thought this would really be a great recruiting tool. We were wrong. Giving each student such an expensive computer, only served to further a false perception of elitism in our Academy. That all came to a head one day while I was on lunch duty in the cafeteria and an African-American male 10th grade student came up to me and told me he wasn’t smart enough.”


“We had a STEM Academy faculty meeting the following Wednesday. I asked the faculty to write down their description of a STEM student. The responses were not surprising, ‘good in math,’ ‘high achiever,’ ‘interested in science,’ ‘comes to school every day.’ These were all the same misconceptions that the students had. When we reviewed the results, we know that we had to start with ourselves before we could attract a diverse student population.”


Dr. Flanigan and his team realized that they had to work on their own perception of an “ideal” STEM student, they started demystify STEM and supply students and their families with the correct information so that they could make well informed decisions about joining the STEM academy and their future career path.


Some of the most common misconceptions regarding STEM include:

  • STEM classes are too difficult. STEM classes are often perceived as being more difficult than other subjects not only by students but also by parents, who want to ensure their child’s maximum possibility of achieving good grades. In academies, Project Based Learning brings subjects to life allowing students to relate to these subjects in a ‘real-world’ context. When students also get a chance to engage in hands-on science and engineering, they can see that the real-life application of the subject, making it easier to relate to and inspiring and motivating them to go further.
  • STEM subjects are for boys only This remains one of the key misconceptions around STEM subjects. Although the STEM workforce is crucial to our innovative and economic growth, women are underrepresented. This may be due to a number of factors including lack of female role models and gender stereotyping. Major opportunities are now plentiful as employers see the need for more women in STEM not only for reasons of fairness and equity but out of innovation and economic necessity.
  • STEM careers lack creativity. STEM careers require lots of creativity and innovation and are centered on resolving problems with imaginative solutions. Albert Einstein stated that ‘The greatest scientists are artists as well.’ Without creative and imaginative thinking, STEM would not be fulfilling its role.

At last count, Jonesboro STEM academy had over 400 students. Dr. Flanigan was pleased, “Almost 40% minority and 35% female. When we addressed our own perceptions, we were able to change the demographics of our academy. We started a “Girls in Stem” initiative, the president of our STEM Club is female and the STEM student of the year is a Female.” The turnaround is impressive. As educators become aware of their own perceptions, they can help underrepresented students including low-income, female, and minorities learn more about how they can have success in STEM Careers.





Case Story: 006

These Case Studies were collected at the 2018 NCAC Model Principal Collective, and compiled by Constance Majka (NCAC). The Model Principal Collective was attended by principals of NCAC Model Academies from across the country and sponsored by the Turner Family Foundation, Harold K. L. Castle Foundation, Hawaii USA Credit Union, Deloitte, First Tennessee Bank, and the College and Career Academy Support Network. Thank you to all of our sponsors and the Model Academy Principals who participated and shared with us!