Reflections: Diversity in STEM


18033396_833554408523_367431073048731894_nI switched jobs recently. I am no longer an educator at a museum but a producer for a creative firm that specializes in digital museum exhibits. We make touchscreen software, touchscreens, projection maps, and other interactive media hoping to inspire people to learn more about their world around them.

We hosted tours for kids this week who were competing in a computing challenge. My stop was first on their list before getting to play with some of our exhibits and meeting many of our technical staff. Our company, like almost all tech companies, is primarily male and Caucasian. I know from working there that a big reason the office is not more diverse is that we simply do not get diverse applicants for job posting. Almost everyone in the office with an opinion on the matter would like to see more diversity, but our pipeline is broken.

So, when I suggested that I talk about diversity as it relates to STEM, the tour organizer thought it was a good idea. As a museum educator, and former college instructor, I think that I may hold a broader definition of diversity than some STEM initiatives.

I think diverse spaces include:

Different ethnicities

Different gender identities

Different religions

People who grew up in rural areas

People from poor families

That being the case, I feel hypocritical as an educator if I ignore a student who doesn’t come from a diverse background. So few students commit to STEM that I think a wealthy Caucasian male is also deserving of chances to grow and develop their skills too.

Considering my somewhat contradictory beliefs I wasn’t sure what to say to these students. What was the point of talking about diversity to groups of young white men? I thought I would point out why diversity was important, so even non-diverse students could understand why they should support their more diverse peers, and to encourage them regardless of their background. We need troops of scientifically literate citizens now more than ever.

I was pleased to find that many of my tour groups were at least half female and somewhat ethnically diverse, so my fear of preaching to young white men all day was ill founded.  One group stuck out to me in particular. I saw a team of four students, three girls and a boy, dressed like they might as well have been at an Future Farmers of America (FFA) meeting.  They represented a kind of diversity that I think many people don’t think about. Students from rural areas are often expected, especially if they work on a farm or ranch, to carry on the family business and learn no more than the skilled labor required to be good at their jobs. Months ago I had lunch with a few professors from Idaho. They lamented that the K-12 teachers they spoke to from rural areas didn’t think their students needed STEM. They argued their students needed to learn practical skills only, as most of them would stay in the area and work with their families. That’s why this team, with their jeans and dusty boots, made such an impression on me. They were exactly the kind of students I would not expect to see at a computing challenge, and they are exactly the kind of students that should be there.

I had another experience with a small group of younger competitors who were all ethnically diverse. Their group was so small that we took some extra time to meet some computer programmers and ask their opinions about a brand new piece of software. They unwittingly also got to chat with our CEO. I was very impressed with their knowledge base and eagerness to figure out how our exhibits worked. As they were leaving their mentor took me aside and thanked me, going so far as to say I should be a cheerleader for young women interested in STEM. Her reasoning surprised me. She explained that some mathematicians had come to visit their school to talk to the girls about STEM. She said that their personalities and style of dress were “rugged” and that some of the young students felt that math wasn’t for them. That because they felt more feminine, they wouldn’t fit in as mathematicians. The irony here is that I dressed nice for the tours that day, knowing kids might like my hot pink 3D printed saber toothed cat skull earrings and fashionable attire. Most days I look pretty “rugged.” My attire matches our computer programming team more than it does our professional producers, but no one at work seems to mind.

At first I felt a little frustrated. It wasn’t fair to judge the visiting mathematicians on what they wore. There are loads of problems with how young girls decide what is feminine and how they want to act. Gender roles are passe for goodness sake! On top of that, I know many women in STEM careers who would make better role models than me. I feel like I perpetuate a stereotype that STEM is only for rugged girls that are outspoken and have tattoos, when I know tattoo free conservative leaning women that do great work. I realized it made me feel bad because this mentor seemed to think I was the best she could get. I’m very good at making science fun, but I don’t represent all women.

All in all the day gave me hope. I saw many diverse groups of students and students that surprised me. I ended each talk by telling them that teams of people with drastically different backgrounds solve problems better, and we need more great problem solves in STEM.