Friday, May 25, 2007

Why 'Perfect Representation' in STEM is important

Why does it matter that Life Sciences (or any STEM field) works to include under-represented minorties like African-Americans, Latinos, Native-Americans, women and people with disabilities. So What does it matter? That was a remark posted on in reference to by post about the topic: SO WHAT?

The big deal with 'perfect representation' has to do with heterogeneity. Physical/Ethnic diversity also yields intellectual diversity -- a diversity of viewpoints, interpretations, and ways to communicate with wider audiences. Students and quite frankly, some academics and administrators, need to know that women, people of color and people with disabilities are capable of contributing to ALL aspects of the human experience. It's not right that people automatically assume that being a scientist means that a person is more likely to be a white male than anything else. As a result, it creates a sad situation where members of the general public assume that 'real authorities' of a discipline come primarily from one demographic. That's not true and it's not right.

There are bigger issues to stab at. And in my opinion the big issue to address is the inconsistency of institutions' objectives to promote diversity and their failure to work toward meeting these objectives. I think it is hypocritical for institutions to talk about how important diversity and education are, but do very little to promote diversity. Or they fail take advantage of programs that could help them meet diversity goals, e.g. those that educate students from under-represented groups, recruit students from under-represented groups.

To be honest, departments and universities could do more - and not necessarily more expensive things. Examples include but are not limited to:
1. improving the overall science education of undergraduates - connnect the curriculum, teach science experientially, promote reasoning and thinking and not memorization

2. encourage undergraduates to participate in research -
provide funds to pay for the hours of research credit, offer scholarships for them to travel to remote sites to work alongside graduate student researchers or post-docs

3. invite undergraduates to attend department seminars.

In other words, I think many science departments could do a better job cultivating young scientists. If the net is cast wide enough, then we're sure to include more students from under-represented groups.

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