Can Inclusive STEM High Schools Narrow the STEM Gap for Under-Represented Students?


This week, SRI Education was honored to participate in the first-ever White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools, which included discussion on how to expand science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) opportunities for groups under-represented in these high-growth fields (African Americans, Hispanics, females and students from low-income families). Previous research shows that many students, especially among those from groups under-represented in STEM, don’t complete the right courses in high school to be prepared for a STEM major in college. If we truly want to increase the participation of under-represented groups in STEM, we need transformational changes in high school educational opportunities.

Two states, North Carolina and Texas, have taken strides toward meeting this challenge by supporting the creation of inclusive STEM-focused high schools at scale. What sets these high schools apart from traditional high schools is that they admit students based on their interest in STEM, either through open admissions or lottery, rather than selecting students on the basis of test scores. Inclusive STEM high schools target under-represented groups and provide all of their students with a four-year high school experience designed to prepare them for STEM courses in college. Because they work with students for four years, these schools provide longer-term and more pervasive STEM learning opportunities than any single summer program, field trip or enrichment opportunity could.

To determine how effective inclusive STEM high schools are at contributing to improved academic outcomes for under-represented groups, SRI Education and George Washington University have been conducting the iSTEM research project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). SRI researchers identified and recruited 39 inclusive STEM-focused high schools and 22 comprehensive (or traditional) high schools serving similar student populations but without a school-wide STEM focus in North Carolina and Texas for this research. We have investigated both the extent to which inclusive STEM high schools contribute to improved academic outcomes and their impacts on students’ interest in STEM careers and expectations for post-secondary study.

After surveying 12th graders from both inclusive STEM high schools and comprehensive high schools, we found that higher proportions of students overall and of those from under-represented groups take more advanced courses in mathematics and science if they attend an inclusive STEM high school rather than a comprehensive high school.

In addition, by comparing high school outcomes for students graduating from inclusive STEM high schools with those of students who graduated from comprehensive high schools, we found that attending an inclusive STEM high school enhances a student’s:

  • Identity as someone who practices science
  • Aspirations for postsecondary education
  • Interest in one or more STEM careers

In addition, our research team surveyed a sample of inclusive STEM high school and comprehensive school graduates from North Carolina and found that the former were more likely to be currently enrolled in a four-year college, had completed more college courses and earned more credits, and were more likely to have declared a STEM major than the graduates of comprehensive high schools.

While our research is ongoing, preliminary results are encouraging. SRI has committed to provide resources for research beyond NSF funding to further enhance iSTEM activities. In the coming years, we will gather state data from North Carolina and Texas to determine how many inclusive STEM high school graduates are in college, as well as how many are in a STEM major. We will also broaden the scope of our study to include inclusive STEM high schools and comprehensive high schools in Ohio. SRI and GWU will share updates through a new online compendium of research findings, case studies and analyses. Through objective analyses of educational outcomes, SRI Education strives to make a positive impact and to help the education field better serve all students.

The research described above was supported by a grant to SRI International from the National Science Foundation (DRL-1316920). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of endorsement of the funding agency.

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