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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.