If we want answers to big STEM questions, we need more diverse question-askers, says SIUE professor | St. Louis Public Radio

If we want answers to big STEM questions, we need more diverse question-askers, says SIUE professor

Sep 5, 2017

While there’s a rising growth in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs in the United States, there’s a dwindling number of Americans interested in and qualified for pursuing such careers. Animal behavioral scientist and Southern Illinois State University-Edwardsville visiting professor Danielle Lee wants to change that, particularly with populations traditionally underrepresented in those fields – women and minorities.

Lee is the author of the “Urban Scientist” series for the Scientific American, as well as a TED Fellow and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She uses these platforms to advocate for more representation and access to STEM.

“Students are interested, but what we lose is persistent professional interest in the fields,” Lee told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Tuesday. “As they matriculate through education, we lose them along the way. Today’s higher education is so expensive. Students are forced to split commitments between: do I pay for school or do I just focus on school? Higher education was designed for individuals who had nothing else to do but focus on their studies. Most students today have jobs and families.”

Lee also mentioned the idea that many students don’t know the variety of careers that can be pursued through an education in STEM.  Lee herself thought she only had the option to become a doctor, but it was only when she was rejected from several veterinary schools that she decided to focus on scientific research.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me: it helped me do the thing I really want to do,” Lee said. “I always was interested in animal behavior.”

She encourages students to work in the lab for at least a semester, to get hands-on experience with research. In fact, that’s how Lee got involved with the research she continues to pursue today on rats in urban settings. Watch her TED talk on the subject here.

Lee said that women are often channeled early on into “nurturing” professions, like nursing, rather than research.

“I want a professional science workforce that looks like the students in my general biology classes,” Lee said. “If you go into a general level science course, you see a lot of beautiful, different faces from a bunch of different, often underrepresented communities. … demographics change dramatically in graduate school, in gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background. We lose a lot.”

Students who come from different backgrounds bring something different to the science world in terms of different approaches to problem solving, Lee said, which makes it key that diverse students are retained in STEM fields.

“Our ability to do good basic or applied research comes down to the kinds of questions that we ask,” Lee said. “People who come from different communities, particularly those that have been well underrepresented, like working class kids who go into Ph.D.-level science, you see the world fundamentally differently. You ask different questions. You come with questions you’re ready to answer because of a problem you’ve seen in your community.”

Lee’s efforts to increase access to STEM fields start with doing her field research in the community and being very vocal about the work she is doing. She has a prolific Twitter account and often live streams and shares photos from the work she is doing. She talks with kids she meets about the science she is involved in.

She also said that the National Society of Black Engineers’ out-of-school STEM education/interaction program is a great model for engaging young people in STEM. In fact, there’s a St. Louis chapter of the program.

It is also on employers to expand the hiring pool and get involved in diverse professional organizations when hiring, Lee said. Half of your candidates should come from traditionally underrepresented groups, she continued.

Lee was also careful to point out that science and STEM education aren’t the only skills needed to produce successful scientists.

“For too long, we’ve been pitting liberal arts against STEM,” Lee said. “These aren’t dichotomous intellectual pursuits. … You can come from a great liberal arts foundation and still pursue the science. We have that much in common, it is all about curiosity.”  

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