Are We Pressuring Students to Choose a Hostile STEM?

I've recently had a nagging feeling, writes Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, that we still haven’t figured out how to ask students: Do you, in fact, want a life in STEM?

October 11, 2019
 
 

Up until 20 years ago, Radcliffe College had a program for women in science who were about to start their first year of college at Harvard University. In fall of 1999, I was part of what would be the last class to go through this program, because I was also part of the last class to be enrolled in Radcliffe College, which was closed a month into that academic year. In the process, Harvard took over Radcliffe’s endowment, created the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and shuttered the program that produced cohorts of women studying science. It wasn’t until 2006 that Harvard even bothered to open a women’s center.

Today, it might be surprising to hear such a story, because programs to encourage women and girls to participate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics abound -- not just at Harvard but everywhere, it seems. A few programs focus on encouraging more black girls and women, along with other people of color, to learn to code or study other aspects of STEM. There are now summer and academic year programs for middle school, high school and college students. At the collegiate level, these programs often provide research opportunities paired with programming that is designed to help underrepresented minorities and white women succeed in environments that weren’t designed for them.

This programming has evolved in the context of an extensive diversity and inclusion discourse that has the sheen of a human rights conversation. But what often powers it economically are concerns about workforce development and national security. I’ve heard many, many times that “we” need more underrepresented minorities to pursue degrees in STEM because if “we” don’t, as demographics change, America won’t remain a global leader in science, and our national security will be threatened.

I came of age as an astrophysicist in an era when programs to promote underrepresented minorities existed, but they were fewer and less elaborate. It is a good thing that such programs have evolved and improved substantively. Increasingly, many (although not all) of the people involved in running them are passionate professionals who recognize the humanity and needs of the students they’re working with -- rather than seeing them as vessels for assimilation.

As a new professor who, since my graduate student days, has been involved in pushing for equity and equality in my disciplines of physics and astronomy, I’m now taking stock of the movement that I’ve sometimes contributed to and sometimes criticized. For me, the significance of this work has nothing to do with national security. Rather, I believe it is about letting humans take the opportunity to live their best lives. That’s why it’s important to encourage students to imagine themselves as scientists. If they are curious about what makes a star radiate, I want them to have the chance to study that at whatever level of detail interests them. And I want them to do so without feeling pressured to serve a national security apparatus that historically has been hostile to marginalized people.

I wonder if, in my youthful exuberance, I’ve pushed to increase the number of minorities in STEM without thinking about whether the people being pushed wanted to be there. My focus on stopping the machine from keeping people out is understandable. But STEM communities are often wildly hostile, and any black woman who has gotten as far as I have into the academic machine has several stories about black women, enbies and men whom academe chewed up and spit out.

Those stories have haunted me for years and guided my advising as well as the kinds of programs I promote and support. As a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, recruiting marginalized students was work that I did on top of my actual professional responsibilities. Now, as a professor, it is formally part my job to teach and advise students, and I have recently had a nagging feeling that we still haven’t figured out how to ask students: Do you, in fact, want a life in STEM?

That is a tough question to ask. Given the enormous amounts of ableism, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and classism in both the academy and corporate world, who but a certain kind of white man would want a life in STEM? At the same time, those forces are at work in our world, no matter what career path we choose. So my personal attitude has often been that if I’m going to suffer with and through them, I should at least do something I am passionate about. And this is the key: I am inexplicably passionate about particle physics. Quantum field theory, the tool we use to understand particles, never gets old for me. My students in Introduction to Astrophysics could tell you that I occasionally lapse into explaining things from the perspective of “my particle physicist brain.”

I have been enormously lucky to pursue this passion unfettered by some of the considerations that shape the decisions many students have to make. I attended Harvard before students of my socioeconomic background were able to graduate debt-free, but I graduated with half the debt that I would have accrued at the flagship research-intensive university in my home state. I didn’t have to worry about supporting children, a spouse or my parents. I entered graduate school before the economic collapse that led to the Great Recession. And when I struggled with student loan payments and medical expenses as a postdoctoral fellow, a financially secure friend from Harvard helped me -- no strings attached. With different circumstances, I might have had difficulty figuring out what path was best for me.

There are other pressures, too. Films like Hidden Figures have popularized the significance of barrier breakers in STEM. Of course, throughout my journey, I was cognizant of the part I was playing as a first in certain scientific spaces. And occasionally, when I was low on motivation, breaking down barriers for others was what kept me going. But I think I benefited from the fact that, while my family was paying attention to my successes, I didn’t hear daily public discussions reminding me of what I symbolized to my community. For students today, that added pressure can be a significant burden.

Students could also feel pressured to choose science when they actually might prefer to spend all of their time writing poetry (although I adore the work of scientists like Lena Blackmon and Joe Osmundson, who are doing both). I am still hoping to build a world that doesn’t find new, creative ways to channel students into capitalist success but rather allows people to thrive. Of course, I am thrilled to have more students from marginalized communities join us in science, but I also want them to do it for the right reasons. A life in science is not easy, even compared to other lines of work for middle-class professionals.

Let’s do a better job of telling students that we value them no matter what they choose to study. It’s okay not to go to graduate school if you’re not ready or particularly enthused about a period of intense and consuming study. It’s okay to lose interest in cosmology.

What’s not okay, what is absolutely unfair, is all of the ways the academy marginalizes people, making it difficult to maintain those interests. Graduate programs in STEM are, for example, deeply unfair to single parents who can’t continue to hang out with their study group at 10 p.m. the night before the problem set is due and who shouldn’t be forced to raise a child on $18,000 a year. It can be fiscally -- and physically, if a student is disabled -- hard to stay in the program. At the same time, leaving a STEM program can feel like a public failure for marginalized students, because we often feel the hopes and dreams of our communities are riding on us.

Few to none of the STEM programs designed to encourage marginalized people to participate in science address these problems. Until they do, we must be thoughtful about what exactly we are shepherding students into and what kinds of social pressures are leading them to choose lives that may make them deeply unhappy. Although suffering for science is a deeply embedded narrative in our professional communities, we can choose not to project that narrative onto the next generation. We need to make sure students know that it’s fine for them to walk away from STEM -- or the academy in general -- given its numerous problems. We also need to ensure they know this deficit is science’s problem, not theirs. It’s okay to love yourself and your values more than you love science.

Bio

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an assistant professor in the department of physics and core faculty member in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire.

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