How to Encourage Transgender Students to Pursue STEM Careers

(Image credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay .)

Making transgender students feel welcome in your class and encouraging them to pursue careers in STEM does not have to be difficult. Sometimes it’s as easy as taking the time to learn your students' preferred pronouns or designing coursework that connects to who they are as individuals. 

And there’s evidence that by doing a better job of connecting and encouraging your transgender students, all students will feel more welcome and encouraged. 

Conduct Frequent Pronoun and Name Checks 

Checking each student’s preferred pronouns and name is vital to making trangender students feel accepted in a STEM class or elsewhere, says Sam Long, a science teacher at Denver South High School and transgender man. Teachers should remember that a student might go by a different name than what’s listed in the school’s roster and that they may not want to go by the same name all the time. 

“Some people want to go by one name at school and something else if you’re communicating with their parents,” Long says. “They may not be out to their parents.” 

To make sure he is referring to each student in class and to their parents correctly, Long uses Google Forms to ask each student to share their preferred names and pronouns. He also asks if it is alright to use this name when he communicates with parents. “Throughout the year students should also have opportunities to make changes,” he says.

This is also an easy way to foster inclusivity, adds Kyle S. Whipple, a professor of Education for Equity and Justice at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “That is just one of those things that I think is so silly that people fight over because I have never been in a school where William didn't get to go by Bill,” says Whipple, a transgender man and former K-12 math teacher whose research focus includes LGBTQ mathematics, inclusion, and care theory, among other topics. 

Avoid Non-inclusive Biology and Language 

Long researches how biology can be taught more inclusively and has found there is room for improvement. 

“For most of us, the biology that we were taught is pretty incomplete,” Long says. “We’re usually not taught the difference between sex and gender, or gender identity.” 

In addition, many students are taught about animal relationships in a way that enforces existing stereotypes. For example, they learn how birds are monogamous and mate for life. “That's one of thousands of different patterns found in animals; there's no reason to only highlight that one in school where students are developing those social values,” Long says. 

Math word problems can also be exclusionary. Often these contain some variation of a problem setup along the lines of, ‘If there are 20 total students and 8 are girls, how many are boys?’ 

“People will write these problems with the assumption that a boy or girl is mutually exclusive and covers all possible people. When you realize that that's not true a lot of the problems become unsolvable,” Long says. “We can be more creative than that and do better than that.” 

Make STEM Exercises Practical and Relatable 

Relating the class material to your students’ lives while also showing them you care about them as individuals can boost content engagement. 

“I'm a big believer in critical care theory,” Whipple says. “It’s something that I think many teachers practice without having a name for, and it is this idea that when we, as educators, show that we care about the entire student, not just whatever content area we're trying to teach them but everything about their lives, they do better.” 

In STEM classes, many lessons can become abstract. “Strangely, as we move up, in difficulty level, we have a tendency to focus completely on procedure instead of context,” Whipple says. “It's not uncommon in physics, for there to be a problem that just says, ‘An object that weighs…’ or ‘An object is moving...,’ and you don't even know what the object is. And that's like the antithesis of how to get students engaged.” 

Instead, Whipple says you can engage students who might soon be getting their license  by teaching them about car speeds and acceleration. For a computer class, he suggests using app creation tools to foster inclusivity and representation. 

“There are apps now that identify gender neutral bathrooms,” Whipple says. “It’s fun to have this as an assignment for students -- create an app that someone walking into our building could turn on, and it would direct them to the nearest gender neutral bathroom.” 

“We know from critical care theory that the more we tie whatever it is we're trying to teach, whether it's computer science, or mathematics, or physics, to students’ real lived experience, not only are they going to be more successful with the material, but they're going to see themselves in it, which then makes them more curious about what comes next,” Whipple says. 

Representation and Kindness Matters  

To get transgender students engaged with STEM, it can help to see others from similar bacgkrounds who have had success. “I'm a big proponent of the idea that we need to be able to see ourselves doing the career,” Whipple says. “So, for example, introducing historical computer scientists who are LGBTQ.” 

Whipple mentions Lynn Conway and Sophie Wilson as possibilities. He also suggests putting up a STEM person of the week with a picture and talking about their background and their contributions to their field. 

Doing this and implementing other inclusionary strategies can help engage all students, regardless of their backgrounds. “At inclusive schools, all the students are more happy,” Whipple says. “If you're kind to the person who is most likely to be picked on, all the students go, ‘Oh, if they're kind to that student, they're definitely going to be kind to me.’ It builds its own momentum.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.