Skip to main content

YOU Belong in STEM

Ed.L.D. marshal Mekka Smith helps federal government promote STEM education
Mekka Smith
Photo: Jill Anderson

When Ed.L.D. marshal Mekka Smith was tasked during her 10-month residency at the Department of Education with organizing a national conference for the department’s “YOU Belong in STEM” initiative, one thing really stood out: people wanted to share their experience feeling like they had a place — or not — in STEM classrooms or careers.

“I had the opportunity to talk with vice presidents of colleges, but also students and department staff, about the initiative as we were promoting it and trying to figure out how we were going to put on the conference,” she says. “I was shocked that everyone had a story about belonging in STEM. Either they felt like they did belong, or they felt like they didn't.”

After Cindy Marten, the department’s deputy secretary, officially announced the initiative, Smith says their STEM email account blew up, with hundreds of messages pouring in from people and organizations wanting to learn more.

To Smith, it made sense. “Belonging,” she wrote in her Ed.L.D. capstone paper, which she published in May, “is not a fuzzy feel-good term; it’s a research-backed concept with broad resonance because it reflects our biological human need for connection.” And seeing yourself as a “STEM person” often happens when we’re young.

“Belonging in STEM starts early in school with students’ exposure to quality teaching, relevant and engaging material, and teachers’ mindsets about students’ ability to achieve,” she writes. “When students do not have a strong sense of belonging and lack access to quality STEM experiences, the effects are far-reaching. By the time they reach higher education levels of study, women represent only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields,” for example.

This essentially is what happened to her. 

“I have my own story about belonging in STEM,” Smith says. “I had a lot of experiences as a child where I went to STEM camps,” including a science camp at Morehouse College and an engineering camp at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Both experiences were specifically geared toward underrepresented students in STEM –– to get them interested in the field. I remember that one of my favorite high school classes was biology, in part because of the number of animal dissections that we performed.” 

But as much as she loved science, and as memorable as those early experiences were, something changed during college when Smith struggled with grasping the concepts in a complex math class, and started feeling like she was no longer a “STEM person.” 

She went to office hours for extra help, but it wasn’t enough. "I needed more support from my teachers and how to not just memorize, but understand the concepts at a deeper level, conceptually,” she says. "I was trying to ask for help, but that was when I felt like I didn't belong. It felt like there were kids who ‘got it’ and kids who ‘didn’t.’ I was in the ‘didn't’ camp.” She stopped taking math classes. Even when she went into education, including 15 years as an administrator, coach, and elementary school teacher and taught science through song, she didn’t see herself as a science person. 

Smith’s experience is exactly what the “YOU Belong in STEM” initiative, supported by the Biden-Harris administration, is trying to combat for other young people — regardless of background — who also stopped seeing themselves as “STEM people,” or who never saw themselves that way to begin with. 

“The field has been pushing the department to do this for a while. When we launched our initiative, it was the first time in more than 10 years that the department had launched something that was STEM,” Smith says. “It was beyond time.”

After hosting a series of round table conversations with people in the field to ask what it would look like for the federal government to take a stand on STEM and really push forward STEM education, and then hosting the national conference, the department created three main goals around STEM learning, including: supporting joyful but relevant STEM education for all students; supporting STEM educators to join, stay, and develop in the STEM field; and providing strategic and sufficient resources. The initiative is also working with states, districts, schools, nonprofits, and community organizations to help them think through tangible ways they can support STEM education aligned with the department’s three goals.

“I think one of the coolest pieces about this is that we are looking to set up hubs in different communities across the country," she says. “The week after my defense, I went to San Diego. San Diego called us and said they were interested in learning more about our belonging and STEM work because they were doing some work that was relevant in the health and social justice space. They had a center for empathy that was doing research on some of the same topics. We kicked off ‘YOU Belong in STEM San Diego’ literally the week after defense.”

Smith, who will stay on with the Department of Education after graduation, says the overall goal for is not for the federal government “go on a tour,” but “for us to help local communities really think through, with all their different partners,” what it looks like to truly come together to support STEM education for all students. “And if STEM is really important for them, we want to provide a blueprint for how they can move that work forward within their own community.” 


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles