Many United States universities were traditionally institutions for white male students. Amidst the push for more underrepresented minority groups and women in STEM, the implementation of diversity and inclusion practices has drawn skepticism. In the article by Heather Mac Donald titled “How Identity Politics Is Harming the Sciences”, it is argued that diversity and inclusion efforts reduce the quality of STEM education. The author claims that these programs are more concerned with making underrepresented minorities feel like they identify as future scientists rather than content mastery. One of the arguments proposed claims that helping students feel that they belong in STEM, while reducing the rigor of the courses does not fit into the framework of “a highly competitive, ruthless, and unforgiving global marketplace.” Despite the belief that the current frenzy to make STEM courses more demographically diverse is causing colleges to reduce the quality and quantity of their courses, the rigidity of STEM curriculums and negative social experiences of being a STEM student is what actually reduces the quality and quantity of STEM professionals.
Resources Need Visibility And Effectiveness
Institutions of higher education often provide many resources for help in STEM courses and advancement. However, many still struggle with these courses regardless of whether they use these resources or not. One of the common problems is using what is learned in class and homework to solve the problems in their exams. Even though taking control of one’s own education is promoted, this can only go so far. For example, in one of my chemistry courses, the homework we completed in the textbook was significantly different from the exams. The exams were much more complicated, multistep, and required higher level application. The lectures were filled with a lot of information cramming. There was an intensive class available to those invited, a secondary text available for extra help, and office hours were available but many still struggled a lot with the exams. While there were some students that did pretty well and had a knack for the material, the fact that so many others struggled shows that just providing resources is not enough, especially when these resources are not effective. Another common problem is the lack of visibility of resources including research opportunities. Colleges and universities may offer multiple research opportunities but putting the onus on students to find these opportunities on their own is misguided, especially for students who do not come from an academic background or family where research during college is promoted. This lack of open communication between students and the college about resources and education plans often leaves students blind to what opportunities are available. At my college, students pursuing the pre-medical track that are interested in a post-baccalaureate program must apply by the early summer after their sophomore year. However, this opportunity is not openly advertised to students in STEM courses and many feel that they have to double up on their requirements in order to finish the pre-medical track on time.
Reduction Versus Applicability
Continuing to push students to conform to the way institutions run their curriculums filters out hardworking students who may have had inadequate prior education and/or difficulty conforming their understanding of the material to the teaching style of the professors. Along with this, there is a common practice of stuffing a vast amount of material into courses while expecting students to use higher level application of the concepts on exams. At the University of California San Francisco, a diversity and inclusion program called SF BUILD was implemented as a “fix the institution” approach, which focuses on identifying and combating stereotype threat, affirmation of altruistic and community-based goals that allow students to give back to their communities, and establishing a community of educators and students who continue the process of biomedical research and application efforts that help communities of color. This project’s goal of making biomedical research applicable to the communities students live in and care about makes the pursuit of material mastery more engaging. Another program called NATURE in North Dakota immerses students at a young age into STEM learning and research that is culturally relevant. Both of these programs make STEM meaningful to the student’s lives, which is imperative in an American society where the mental, physical, and social well-being of all people comes secondary to technological advancements.
The debate on whether diversity and inclusion is important for the future of STEM often centers around material mastery versus a sense of belonging in the field one is pursuing. Having a sense of belonging in the field one is pursuing fuels passion for that field and increases interest in mastering material in the field. However, opponents of diversity and inclusion efforts seem to view these objectives as mutually exclusive. The importance of working hard and focusing in school is often lost among young people, especially K-12 students, who do not find a connection between their own realities and the content of their classes. Curiosity and exploration drive the growth of STEM content. Wanting to help the well-being of humanity, environmental sustainability, and increasing the reaches of technology drives the growth of STEM content. However, with all of the advancements in STEM, the quality of human life and the environment is not improving, especially for those underrepresented minorities who often live in disadvantaged and forgotten communities.
The main barrier presented as an excuse for institutional rigidity is time. One unlikely change that could help reduce the strain to fit a large amount of material into a small time frame is extending the average amount of years college takes to complete. Science continues to increase in content, yet the education system has not increased the time it allots for students to learn material. The education system is structured where those in disadvantaged neighborhoods — often populated with mostly underrepresented minorities — receive little to no STEM education in elementary schools and begin to see STEM as something only for those who identify with only for a small group of elite learners. Putting STEM into the lives of elementary aged children and allowing students to try to solve problems through their own reasoning would be the first stepping stone to increasing interest in STEM. Having courses in high school that provide more advanced and applicable STEM coursework will better prepare students for college. Making college and university coursework more flexible and applicable to all students would increase the STEM field representation across race, gender, and class.
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