Recognizing and Overcoming Barriers to Participation in STEM

PreK-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the United States continues to face challenges at structural and academic levels. These challenges are exacerbated in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. The consequence of below-par educational opportunities for students in these communities manifests in their underrepresentation in the STEM workforce. There is a correlation between socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity; and academic performance has been linked to socioeconomic conditions. Female, Black, and Hispanic students, and students with disabilities, also participate at lower rates than their white male peers.

Recognizing Barriers to Participation

Barriers to participation in STEM education – including socioeconomic, self-perception, physical, institutional, and societal constructs – significantly impact underrepresented or underserved communities, including individuals belonging to protected categories relating to race or ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and disability.

Geographically speaking, the location of school districts indirectly impacts student access to STEM resources. Rural schools typically receive less funding than their urban or suburban counterparts. Educators in rural schools may “wear many hats,” teaching many subjects concurrently, sometimes resulting in diluted STEM course content. In contrast, in urban or suburban districts, it’s not uncommon to find teachers specializing in STEM subjects armed with cutting-edge tools and information.

School systems in lower socioeconomic status communities often are underfunded to meet the unique needs of the students. The schools are less likely to have enough resources to support student engagement in science when compared to more affluent areas in the same city or state. School systems that receive Title I funding often use the money for additional staff, intervention programs for remedial instructional support, and family engagement initiatives. These funds are rarely used to create high-quality extracurricular STEM programs, and if funding is allocated, the STEM programs occur outside of the school day, making it difficult for students to attend due to lack of transportation home, or working outside of school hours to help support the family.

A student’s self-perception can create barriers to participating in STEM activities if they do not identify with the majority of participants. A student may react to implicit and explicit biases of other participants or program leaders. The lack of role models in the curriculum and program also directly impacts recruitment, engagement, and retention. If a student feels they are in a hostile environment, successful program engagement and retention are not possible.

Every child should have an equal opportunity to access the educational material they seek. Exclusion or mainstream education is widely accepted as a normative treatment in the modern educational system; however, it is not equitable. Students with disabilities find it difficult to participate in STEM programs largely because of the cost of inclusion. Many nonprofit organizations do not have the money to modify materials, equipment, and presentation of content. Additionally, expectations of people with disabilities can serve as a barrier to participation. STEM program leaders may not be knowledgeable about the implications or impact of a disability and therefore limit the student because they don’t believe the student can understand the content or they do not know how to accommodate the needs of the student.

Addressing Barriers to Participation

AIAA is committed to improving access to STEM education for students. Providing access to quality STEM education programs is essential for the ongoing progress of our nation. These programs promote improved student academic performance and future opportunities. Employers benefit from having a more prepared workforce, which translates to a healthier economy.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when discussing underrepresented students’ barriers to participating in STEM activities. While the seemingly obvious solution may be to increase STEM program funding through grants and fundraising, funding is not the sole indicator of access. Instead, a multifaceted approach is needed to support students and facilitators.

AIAA supports helping STEM educators adapt to the 21st-century learning environment. This may include providing them with training on remote learning, as well as using the most current STEM education resources. Additionally, investing in and strengthening local programs will go a long way toward getting students interested in STEM careers. It is important to invest in educator training and resources in STEM so educators are best positioned to convey the material to students. Educators will need to use culturally responsive teaching principles to mold the educational content to best connect with their students’ life experiences. Offering mentorship opportunities with community members who have pursued their own STEM career pathways will have many benefits, including helping inspire and excite students to pursue STEM careers, helping students reach beyond the classroom to apply STEM concepts, and sparking students’ interest in STEM outside of school.

The AIAA K-12 Outreach Committee, Diversity Subcommittee shares a common interest in promoting STEM and aerospace studies among students everywhere. Its members come from varied backgrounds and lived experiences that have impacted the way they approach Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). The subcommittee invites AIAA members to continue this conversation on Engage at For more information on AIAA K-12 education programs, go to

Recognizing and Overcoming Barriers to Participation in STEM