Broadening participation in the STEM disciplines: Insights from a diverse group at Science Online

In many native languages, there’s no word for science.  It’s not that there’s no science in those cultures; it’s just that science isn’t differentiated from the rest of life. That’s a beautiful concept and an enviable one, considering the problems our society has in getting people even to think about that scary thing we isolate from the rest of our lives and call science.

The point arose, courtesy of Dr. Cynthia Coleman, a member of the Osage tribe (Musings on Native Science), at the Science Online 2012 conference in Raleigh last week. But you don’t have to seek out another culture to find perceptions about science that differ profoundly from those of faculty members and researchers.  It’s right there in the classroom.

“… [D]on’t tell someone their struggle isn’t real or dismiss them. Studying is hard, so is balancing work-life issues. … This stuff we call science may come easy or quickly for you, but some students may have to struggle to get the info.  Point them to university resources to help them study.  No matter how odd or unbelievable or unlikely you think these confidence-conflicts may  be, the sure fire way to turn a student off to the discipline (and to you) is prove that you can’t be trusted to take his/her concerns for doing well seriously.”

— Dr. Danielle Lee, The Urban Scientist

The discussion was convened by Dr. Lee; its starting point was broadening participation in online science communication and communities. Dr. Lee’s insights are on her blog and are well worth reading.

It was encouraging both to see a good turnout and to hear a very engaged exchange among a diverse group of scientists and communicators.  The key takeaway: We all (including you, us and everyone else) need to be doing more to understand and engage those who are in our STEM programs (whether they’re struggling or not), those who are opting out for other careers, and especially the many potential engineers and scientists who got discouraged early on and won’t even think about it now.

We can’t expect them to come to us.  We have to go to them, and they’re online.  We should be, too (that’s not the only place we need to be, but it’s one where we need to have more of a presence).  Check out the list of bloggers at Minority Postdoc or the blogging collective Scientopia. Or consider the e-mentoring opportunities at MentorNet.  The opportunities are out there, and they’re as accessible to you as they are to your colleagues here and counterparts at other universities who are already involved.  It’s a matter of us being as engaged in reaching out as we want our students and potential students to be in opening their minds to the possibilities of being our students, our colleagues and, ultimately, our successors.

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