What the Critical Race Theory Debate Could Mean for STEM Education

Written by: Reagan Flowers, Ph.D.

You have probably seen the term critical race theory (CRT) a lot lately. Unfortunately, the issue has become highly divisive and politicized. However, we need to focus on proposed changes’ impact on today’s students, future careers, and our communities.

The Debate Around Critical Race Theory

What is critical race theory, and why has it become a hot topic? Critical race theory has studied systemic racism and discrimination from a legal and sociological perspective for more than four decades. Nevertheless, some lawmakers are looking to ban CRT from education and have already succeeded in some states. For example, in Texas, bills aim to ban CRT and prevent teachers from discussing specific past and current events.

CRT looks at the policies, procedures, and laws that have caused marginalization and discrimination and those that continue to do so. CRT has helped improve K-12 education include efforts to acknowledge oppression in history courses, addressing bias against minority students, and increasing educational opportunities for underserved students. As you can see, this is directly in line with C-STEM’s mission.

Those who are looking to eliminate CRT cite that it is divisive. Some proposed bills aim to eliminate the discussion of discrimination and programs that center on diversity and inclusion.

Why CRT is Still Relevant and Needed

CRT is an intellectual framework that has allowed us to look at the disparities in America, what caused them, and the marginalization that continues to exist. However, change is slow, and though we have made strides in providing equal opportunity in education, there is still a long way to go. I have addressed many of these issues in past blogs.

In our work at C-STEM, we see every day that Black, female, economically disadvantaged, and other underrepresented students struggle for the same opportunities as their counterparts. Several factors play into this, including lack of resources, biases at school, and struggles at home.

Eliminating CRT can only further the learning gaps and decrease opportunities for these students. Ignoring existing disparities will worsen them, not improve them. Only by understanding our past can we make things better for the future. CRT acknowledges America’s citizens from every background, working toward fair, equitable laws and practices. Seeing everyone as the same and denying past and present discrimination only opens the door for further division.

How CRT Impacts STEM Education

At C-STEM, we work hard to ensure all students have the resources they need to move into successful STEM careers if they wish. First, we addressed how banning CRT could be a barrier to this success. Now, let us look at how it could impact these students’ work once they get into their STEM careers.

Underrepresented students are better aware than anyone of systemic racism and disparities. However, not all experiences are the same. For example, a Black female student from a working-class neighborhood may experience different obstacles than a Latino male from an impoverished neighborhood. All students need to understand the systems in place that can cause discrimination. Let us look at two very relevant examples.

When the COVID-19 vaccine began rolling out, the CDC quickly realized that significant inequities were developing for racial and ethnic minority groups. They dedicated billions of dollars in partnerships toward trying to close these gaps. Without CRT, this analysis would not have occurred. No one would have been considering problems related to access and transportation.

Another example is found in the work engineers do. Their work touches on planning neighborhoods, transportation, lighting, and other crucial infrastructure. CRT has uncovered past practices by the government that led to the segregation in housing we still see today. To move forward, engineers need this background to build solutions for the future, ensuring they are not creating further disparities.

In closing, critical race theory is just that — critical to our future. The proven methods for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have always relied on identifying problems, pinpointing what is not working, and developing solutions to move forward. We must continue this approach to ensure equitable access to STEM education. CRT is an essential tool for accomplishing that, and we must fight to maintain it.