A scientist, an engineer, a physician, and a mathematician walk into a bar

A scientist, an engineer, a physician, and a mathematician walk into a bar.

The scientist says, “let me investigate the selection of drinks that are found in this habitat.” The engineer says, “I see your tap is making my beer too foamy – let me build a better one.” The physician says, “let’s observe the effects on our bodies when we get drunk.” The mathematician says, “let’s model the flow of the drinks.”

Then everyone has a drink and stops being hypothetical examples to prove a point.

In real life, scientists, engineers, physicians, and mathematicians are actually a lot more fun than that at bars. (Spoiler, it’s because we’re normal people who sometimes go out for a drink.) But most of the other patrons wouldn’t be able to tell you the differences between our fields and career options. They wouldn’t even necessarily want to try. We’re just morass of nerds. And more importantly, my students couldn’t tell you the difference either.

High school and college students’ lack of understanding of the distinctions between different STEMM* fields seriously hinders efforts to encourage students into those fields, to promote diversity, and to maximize field of study/career satisfaction. Students see STEMM professionals as monolithic in knowledge, training, and demographics. Consequently, the psychosocial barriers to choosing such a field, especially for underrepresented groups who lack visible role models or communities, are high.

Despite the fact that STEMM professions dominate the list of fastest-growing jobs in the country, just 28% of 4-year college students enrolled in a STEMM major. Half of them never complete it. Ultimately, about 1/3 of students who complete college have a degree in STEMM.

I have found myself unexpectedly teaching neural engineering for a group of high schoolers in a college preparation program for underserved schools. Neural engineering is a niche field and a relative newcomer to the research stage, so I didn’t expect prior knowledge. I was surprised, however, to realize that my students had no idea of the difference between science, engineering, and medicine. (Math is a little more straightforwardly separate, though they have been stymied by the connection between math and the other areas.) I brought in guest instructors who were primarily engineers. I asked them on homework to discuss experiments (science) and device designs (engineering).

Six weeks of this, and I think it’s finally sinking in that 1, scientists, engineers, and physicians receive different training and have different responsibilities (and legally-allowable scopes of practice), and 2, all STEMM fields inform each other. Neural engineering is a particularly good example of science and medicine, informing technology and engineering, which depend on math, which are tested in science and medicine applications. But if not for this class, my students would know none of those distinctions – or opportunities. (Their other teachers and staff for their program are also covering this material, but I got them right at the beginning of their enrollment, so nobody else had really had a crack at them yet.)

I’m frustrated by this for two reasons – first, students are intimidated away from STEMM fields because it seems to be this undifferentiated block to them, with a (mostly deserved) reputation for being challenging academically, and that is not a good start to encouraging impressionable students into choosing a field of study. Then, even if they do make the leap, they don’t fully understand the career options, and may end up in a field that they don’t love as much as they could, or are so discouraged they drop out entirely. (This is called the leaky pipeline problem, and it is especially leaky for women and minorities, who are still underrepresented in most STEMM fields.)

I’m trying to help my students see these distinctions and opportunities, but there’s only one of me, and I can only talk to so many of them. We need a shift in how we portray STEMM fields to students in the classroom and in career counseling. We also need representation in the media (and I know this is a taboo idea to many media-shy scientists), where kids first learn what different professions are and develop a self-image that might include the identity of a scientist or engineer, and understand that their existing identity could mesh with that of a scientist. (This means that TV/movie scientists shouldn’t all look like Doc Brown, seriously, it’s 2016, take a look at some demographic tables once in a while, screenwriters.) This proposition seems so low-investment that the returns couldn’t possibly be valuable, but even these simple interventions produce substantial gains.

I’m planning to return more directly to the topic of representation in media (have you noticed there are zero, count ’em zero famous American female science educators ever? And one non-white educator (Neil deGrasse Tyson)?) later, but I had to get my soapbox out briefly here. For the moment, I will conclude with the observation that the ever-raging discussion on how to encourage students into STEMM fields never seems to touch on teaching them what those fields mean in the first place. It’s always “sign up more kids for coding classes!” and never “what can you do with coding skills other than working for one of the five super visible tech companies, and therefore why should you take this rad class?”

I’m trying to think of some snappy closing that isn’t literally “ANYONE CAN COOK” from Ratatouille but “anyone can science!” and it’s not coming to me. Anyone can science!


* I prefer the acronym STEMM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine – over the more traditional STEM, which does not include medicine. Using STEMM over STEM reinforces the idea that medical fields are rooted in science and their practitioners should be trained in the basic sciences.

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