The imperative for involvement and inclusion in STEM

by Dr. Ron Darbeau ([email protected]) 210 views 

Editor’s note: Dr. Ron Darbeau is the new dean of the College of STEM at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.

The three biggest problems that confront our planet are food insufficiency, the unavailability of clean affordable energy, and a fragile climate. The solutions to these three issues lie squarely in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But without the presence of more minorities in STEM, these challenges will persist longer than their shelf life, and humanity may well be made to pay a steep price for its myopia.

The case for the involvement and inclusion of minorities in STEM disciplines is fundamentally one of promise. An enterprise’s greatest asset is its human capital. A team is only as good as its players and coaching staff; a company as its staff and administrators; a college campus as its students, faculty and staff, administrators and external stakeholders.

Likewise, progress in STEM rests upon the shoulders of its practitioners. Consider the loss of productivity and waste if more than half of a team or business did not participate in the enterprise. STEM is the engine that drives society. It permeates every aspect of our lives and keeps us out of the dark ages – standing between humanity and disease, famine and disaster. It provides bright promises of curing cancer, Alzheimer’s and AIDS, of an endless supply of clean water and air, of affordable, renewable, benign sources of energy, and of the colonization of our solar system and beyond.

Yet, the harvest is plenty, but the laborers are few. To put it simply, more than half of our team hasn’t shown up yet. The reasons are many – there are those who think they can’t, or were told they can’t; those who were never exposed to STEM or who lacked appropriate mentors and inspiration; those functionally denied access because of institutional prejudices, real or perceived, against them.

Whatever the reasons, the STEM disciplines suffer from a severe lack of qualified practitioners – a condition exacerbated by the steady exit of baby boomers who have done their time in the trenches and who are taking with them decades of expertise and their unique “can-do” attitude and work ethic.

A central tenet of science is the scientific method. Many express this as a rigorous, restrictive methodology that, in effect, reduces scientists and engineers to automatons who plug an idea into one end of the method and collect a result from the other.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This narrow misunderstood vision ignores the simple fact that scientists and engineers bring their own personalities, their own biases, passions, backgrounds and training into an endeavor. As such, no two practitioners would approach the same problem in exactly the same way. This is why STEM is enriched by engagement across a broad sociocultural and experiential spectrum. This is why virtually all scientific discoveries are made by teams of individuals. What a tragedy if we left natural quarterbacks or point guards – the next Joe Montanas or Michael Jordans – undiscovered. But all that would suffer then would be the NFL, the NBA and their fans. The loss to humanity for not engaging the next Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mary Goode, Chien-Shiung Wu or Mae Jemison is far more perilous.

We need women, ethnic minorities and internationals to spearhead or support discoveries that are important to them, to pursue discoveries that enhance their part of the spectrum of humanity so the whole human family is enriched. We need them to be visible to each and all, to remind the inertia-filled establishment, and to inform the capable but disengaged or disenfranchised that talent, discipline and consistent hard work are the only ingredients necessary and sufficient for success.

For at the end of the day, what is the alternative? Should we continue to stumble along with half a team, self-crippled, missing out on opportunities that enrich the human family; missing out on individuals who would champion a cause and simultaneously be role models to others who look and sound like them?

Until there is a viable mechanism for perpetual inclusion of varied perspectives in STEM, we will never progress at full throttle.