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March 15, 2014

STEM Diversity and 'The Causal Loop'

FairerScience friend Andrew Campbell directs the Initiative to Maximize student Development (IMSD) at Brown University. In their current issue of their newsletter, The View, Andrew wrote:

The greatest threat to STEM workforce expansion through diversity may be our failure to recognize that employing decades old approaches to training can only yield the same outcomes. This is the case of a causal loop.

Causal loops are ‘Predestination paradoxes’* exemplified by the case of an individual who travels back in time to discover the source of a famous fire. While at the site where the fire started, the traveler accidentally knocks over a lamp that causes the fire that inspired him, many years later, to travel back in time. Current efforts to achieve STEM-field trainee and workforce diversity resemble a predestination paradox in that the approaches taken may in fact be contributing to the poor outcomes. As scientists we pride ourselves on ensuring reproducibility by eliminating variables, outliers, and unknowns. While this works well in the test tube and at the bench, it does not work as well in broadening the scientific workforce. In fact, applying such criteria to training is inconsistent with achieving diversity, and it serves only to replicate the past.

Unlike predestination paradoxes, training practices can be changed. Doing so requires ‘outside of the box’ thinking and incorporating methods that move away from the prescriptive and top-down approaches to program design and practice. Many of the current training program practices are thought experiments, which presuppose that the STEM trainers’ decades old experiences still have merit in training today’s trainees. As scientists we use the experimental tools of 2014. The same should be done to train the next generation of scientists–minimizing the training modalities used 25 years ago. Today’s trainees process information and interface with the world differently than we did a quarter of a century ago.

As FairerScience’s Tom Kibler often points out, “yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems”. We need to look at the strengths, weaknesses and needs of today’s students, in all their diversity. Only then can we well serve students.

March 08, 2014

Here we go again, but this time with a twist

You know the drill, an older, white, male, engineering professor, who has daughters (and in this case granddaughters and great granddaughters), based on personal experience, "knows" that young or old, females and males are most certainly different. In this case, based on "anecdotal" observation, he decides that more creativity and less emphasis on tools, like Chemistry and Physics, is what we need to get more women in engineering.

We've all heard/read many variations of this over the years so you ask, why am I writing about it now? The answers is because FairerScience friend Jen Thurber has written an awesome response and given me permission to share it with you.

"I am extremely disappointed in the level of condescension in this article. Every female engineer can contemplate without being “good” at math, physics, or chemistry: 'What will the diaper look like 10 years from now?' Are you kidding?

As one of the "females" in the engineering field, technical ability is not the primary reason women leave. It's constant comments like this that say we are different, less capable, less interested in participating. It's not only the college environment- it's the workplace especially. How many times have I been passed over for field work because it's assumed I don't want to "get dirty" (read: experience), spoken to differently (read: inclusion), and been told that I am somehow more special than other women for embarking on, and staying in, an industry that interested me, despite these managerial offenses.

Creativity is always a welcome commodity in any engineering field, but curiosity is better. In either case, don't ever pretend that science can be replaced, and don't weaken the field by allowing graduates who do not excel in these areas. Would you employ a firefighter even if she couldn't carry the equipment? Of course not. But you would if she was able to carry you out of that burning building. The question is, would she stay if she was treated as "other"? The answer to women remaining in engineering as much about engaging them early in their schooling as it is about treating them fairly and equally in the workplace. Success means asking them and requiring them to participate, showing students what is possible and employees what is required. It means listening to their ideas with the same level of intention as their male counterparts. It means not fearing that they'll take their anager to HR if they interact more than once a week.

One very nice aspect of math and science is that equations and equipment don't care what gender or culture you are. One unfortunate aspect of people is that some of them care very much, and write articles like this. So don't pretend women don't continue in engineering because they can't. Do not confuse can't and won't. "

Thank you Jen. I hope everyone reads this and hears what you are saying.