More to Science than the Science: Cultural Components of STEM.

In this blog I’ve talked a lot about what I do in the classroom to provide the best experiences and opportunities for my students to learn. However, I want to take this opportunity to talk about my personal feelings on providing an education for my students outside of the lab or classroom – specifically, educating them on the culture of science. I’ve mentioned before that one of my goals is to help produce knowledgeable, critical-thinking, positively-contributing citizens of the world, but to do that I need to expose my students to very real issues outside of the field of neuroscience, too. To try to accomplish this, I recently invited a visiting scholar, Mateo Cruz, ABD Organizational Psychologist and lecturer at Bentley University, to campus to talk to our Women in STEM student group about stereotype threat and bias in STEM. Before I get into how great Mateo is and how important his message is, I want update you on goings-on in Selinsgrove, PA:

Spring break was much needed this year…between the course overload and traveling, I haven’t had time to get a lot of grading done. So, thankfully, I’m snowed in and have almost no other choice but to do work!

 

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This captures Spring Break 2017. I’m house/dog-sitting for a colleague who lives on a farm. Yesterday snowstorm Stella rolled in, dumping about 17 inches of snow (here at least, more in other places). I took this opportunity to snuggle the hounds (Barley and Ava) and get some grading done (that number is down about 50 items…).

 

Stereotype Threat and Bias in STEM

Before spring break, I hosted Mateo Cruz on campus to speak with our Women in STEM group about stereotype threat in STEM. While on campus, Mateo also met with a Human Resources Management class in the Sigmund-Weis Business School and with the Principles of Psychology students. A little about Mateo, pulling from his faculty bio: his research and teaching interests include stereotype threat; identity management; gender, diversity and career outcomes; organization change; multicultural competency; and management education. Not only are these areas extremely interesting, Mateo is charismatic and a fantastic teacher, making learning about these issues very easy and engaging. I had met Mateo at the AAC&U Transforming STEM in Higher Education conference in fall of 2016, which I wrote about here. I attended his workshop with our Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and we both agreed that our students would really benefit from hearing about stereotype threat in STEM and the research Mateo was doing on the topic.

I think here is a good time to say something about my experience as a woman in a STEM career. I, personally, have not perceived outright, slap-in-the-face, bias or stereotyping in regards to my being a woman within the STEM community. This doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened (I likely didn’t notice at the time), and it doesn’t mean that other women haven’t had really horrible experiences. I have heard stories from colleagues and read about situations other women have published, and it’s hard to believe some of the ignorant and offensive things people think it’s ok to say and do. Then again, we do have stuff like this getting published that people truly believe.

The point is that there is a cultural component of working in a STEM field that my students should know about so that they can navigate their careers and make positive changes in their own behaviors, and eventually contributing to beneficial institutional changes in the long-run. This is what I mean by ‘science outside of the science’. Yes, having knowledge of the current research and knowing how to do science is critical to a career in STEM, but it is not the only factor influencing success. Women drop out of STEM careers pretty rapidly after receiving a degree, and some reasons, of many, that women leave is due to stereotype threat and bias they experience. Mateo’s research is focused on strategies women use in navigating stereotype threat in STEM and the first strategy, used primarily by young women in the early stages of their career, is to deny that the problem may apply to them and believe that their success is dependent ONLY on their ability to do good work. I must admit, this is absolutely how I felt about it for a long time, and I’m pretty sure most of my students do as well. However, ignoring bias and stereotyping is not helpful to my students nor will it influence the cultural changes that need to occur.

While I truly believe the work Mateo is doing is critical and everyone should know about it, my blog is not the proper platform to deliver his message and research, so I will stop there. I will say that the students, faculty, and staff that were able to chat with Mateo about these issues were enlightened and I think there were a few ‘ah-ha’ moments. It is certainly a bit depressing to think about the current situation for women in STEM fields when all the problems are laid out, but again, the glimmer of hope is that educated young minds will have the tools to fix the problems that many still face in our scientific community.

I often wonder how I can help make big changes in the world. How can I help fix some of the biggest problems our society faces? Trying to find solutions gets overwhelming, real quick. I then remember that every day I have an audience of young minds. I know some may call it indoctrinating, but I think I am teaching my students to think critically and question everything – current issues included, even if those issues don’t seem to play a big part in their experience. I have chosen to focus my efforts on a handful of cultural issues, and the experience of women in STEM is one of them. I sincerely hope that talking about these issues and serving as an example will help create positive change in the future. I believe my job is so much more than teaching college students about the brain, and I hope I am using my platform wisely.

 

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