19 thoughts on “What does ‘broadening participation’ mean to you?

  1. To me, broadening participation means ensuring that every person who is interested in pursing STEM knowledge and careers has the ability to do so. Only a small fraction of the global population is adequately exposed to science education. This is a travesty. If we utilized our human capital more effectively, we might have already solved some of the greatest scientific challenges that face humankind such as curing HIV are identifying a sustainable renewable energy source. We must broaden participation to ensure that the next Albert Einstein or James Watson does not fall off of the STEM pipeline.

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  2. My opinion is that “broadening participation” means leveling the playing field. I believe that broadening participation in STEM will be rooted in ensuring equal opportunity for all demographics to exceed in these fields. As a woman in my early twenties, I feel like I have to make a choice between starting a family and exceeding in academia. It’s no secret that it is difficult to foster a rich family life at the same time as building an outstanding career of achievement in science. This is likely why many women are found at the undergraduate and graduate level, but are less often lab advisors, corresponding authors, and leaders of the field. The NSF would do a great service to women and to STEM in the U.S. by starting initiatives to fund child care, maternity leave, and family relocation at either the individual or institutional level. I would be very interested to know how other women feel about this topic.

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    • One additional issue I would add to the conversation of women as professors, etc. in science and engineering is the culture in the departments across the US. Why is it that working 50, 60, 70, 80 hours a week or more is glorified here in the US? It is definitely not in at least most places in Europe, and I believe it has been shown that working more makes less productivity. When research success is a tough competition, and some peers are more than willing to work more and more, and departments readily accept the results and (perhaps unknowingly) raise the expectations, then working more hours becomes “required” for “adequate performance” in a “publish or perish” environment. Regardless of how great benefits are for when kids are young, if your department culture says “you have to work tons of hours” then there won’t be time to spend with family no matter what age the kids are. Then seemingly we have to choose… Or we need to be empowered to embrace the 40 hour work week!

      But I would agree especially with the necessity of maternity leave initiatives. This is yet another point where the US has fallen far behind European countries. California seems to be making grounds, though.

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      • Indeed, the physical capability, and social/economic opportunity, to devote extreme hours to academics is not evenly distributed in the population, so putting too much weight on this measure is clearly discriminatory (especially too early in training when some people have not yet had the opportunity to earn their living from their scholarship, as opposed to squeezing it in around a different job).

        Also, it is important for the advancement of science that there be ways for the very best and brightest to get into science even if they can’t work 70 hours per week. In my view, a paper that is both highly innovative and highly rigorous, and successfully pushes forward a breakthrough idea that no one else was thinking about, is more valuable than ten incremental papers that report one more little experiment in the same vein as many others that came before it. There should be more reward for exceptional quality of work and really moving the science forward, not just for producing more work. The people who produce exceptional scientific work should have career opportunities in science even if they can only work 40 hours per week.

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  3. “Broadening the field,” to me, entails taking measures to ensure that groups from backgrounds other than the traditional white men, have equal opportunities and abilities to succeed. As an engineer, it is incredibly saddening to me to see the lack of diversity in so many engineering fields. Women and minorities bring their own unique perspectives and may be able to not only solve problems in a different way, but also SEE problems that white men do not. Take, for example, researchers not performing drug experiments on female mice, assuming that sex was an insignificant factor. How does this happen? Of course differences between sexes are going to be significant. Would a more diverse field have thought through this problem a little better?

    It also seems to me that broadening the field is also taking accountability for the very real inequality that exists for women and minorities. Women are less likely to give long talks at conferences and their papers are often cited less. Is this due to the quality of work or an unconscious bias against female researchers? Women professors are often treated different by their students and peers (ask any long time female researcher and I guarantee you they have stories of overt sexism) which may account for their lack of desire to continue in STEM fields. These are hard questions, that as a field, we need to actively address if we really expect to “broaden the field.”

    And I note in Thomas’ comment, he names only male scientists. What about the Rosalind Franklin, without whom James Watson wouldn’t have had the X-ray crystallography pictures to make his discovery? Don’t we need more of her too?

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  4. Diversity is best fostered through grants and fellowships targeted at young scientists from underrepresented backgrounds – Congress cut the last remaining such federal grant, the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, reinforcing the belief that minority students, first generation students, and low-income students would be better off not pursuing science or higher education. The diversity of opinions and perspectives so valuable for innovation cannot be sustained without support in an environment defined by student debt and a widespread disregard for the value of higher education. The only people who will pursue scientific training will be those who grow up in an environment privileged enough to foster this long-term investment in humanity. Everyone else will just be trying to make ends meet.

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  5. I agree with the various comments above that effective ‘diversity’ initiatives would seriously consider why people are under-represented in STEM research and education, and seek to address some of these barriers, most of which are not about individuals, but about entire groups of people who are excluded in STEM – including long-term financial disadvantages, lack of mentors from those same disadvantaged groups, lack of support for non-traditional students, and so on.
    However, I don’t think ‘diversity’ is merely a matter of broadening participation or bringing more of those who are ‘missing’ into STEM. It is also about making STEM more politically and socially relevant in the world and being able to question what is missing in the underlying assumptions of STEM that may explain some of these exclusions. To do so, STEM needs to be supplemented by other disciplines that are able to understand the place and politics of science/technology/math in the world.
    For example, do medical researchers know why so many people of color do not trust scientific research, which has a long history tied to racial exploitation? Why aren’t more epidemiologists trained in learning about global development history (colonialism, neo-liberal structural adjustment policies, etc.), which offer better tools for explaining why some parts of the world have devastated healthcare systems and are more likely to suffer from contagious outbreaks? What does it mean for race to be a ‘social construction’ (i.e. does not have a biological basis), yet also manifest in very material, physiological, and biological differences? In what ways has the history of ‘science’ as a Western pursuit both subsumed and erased various traditions of knowledge production from different parts of the world? Would people in STEM recognize or value those forms of knowledge if they were to encounter them today, or would they dismiss them as primitive, non-scientific, or inexplicable? What are the limits of approaching questions through a scientific method, and what questions are raised through these limits?
    These are the kinds of questions that cannot be answered by STEM alone, but are necessary to ask for STEM to operate effectively in a complex world. To broaden participation, STEM education itself needs to be broadened, to include work in (for example) medical humanities, science and technology studies (STS), history and philosophy of science, critical geography and sociology. Approaching STEM questions through these rich interdisciplinary frameworks will allow researchers in STEM fields to better approach a complex world and strengthen their capacities to translate their work meaningfully across boundaries (of science/social worlds, of the academy/the ‘real world’, of the lab/field, of policy/community, etc.).

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  6. I agree with many of the thoughts already posted on this thread. I think that “broadening participation” also means directing the appeal of science to many different *types* of people; particularly those who would not normally find science interesting. For example, an artistic person may find the strictures of scientific or mathematical laws to be overly structured. For such people, it is important to emphasize the things that would make them interested in science, such as how much of the order and beauty of nature is due to mathematical laws (e.g., logarithmic organization of geese flying in formation, fractal patterns in fern fronds, etc).

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    • On a related note, it is important that math education, at the pre-college and undergraduate levels, include coverage of the practical importance of math and all of the uses of each kind of math, because women do not commonly find math fun: women are more likely to value, and pursue, math because of all the things you can do with it that you can’t do without it, so it is important that they know what all these things are.

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  7. All discussions of this nature encounter a very difficult challenge, I think. It is certainly important to determine how to better ensure that STEM is open to anyone interested in pursuing it, and it is apparent at this time that some populations are less represented than others. But true diversity is not found by increasing the photograph-able diversity, but rather by increasing diversity of background and life experience. And that is not so easy to do, or certainly to quantify.

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  8. Pingback: Opportunity to participate in the NSF Grad Forum | Women in Planetary Science: Female Scientists on Careers, Research, Space Science, and Work/Life Balance

  9. I absolutely agree with and support pavi525’s in particular, but also others’, very well articulated response/s. I think broadening participation means including a more diverse population of people in STEM science, as well as broadening the vision of STEM research. More and more fields are recognizing the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches to research and the complex systems fields are booming.

    As a woman in her early 30’s coming back for a masters and then a PhD, I have definitely had to make decisions in terms of family verses school and career. I think things like maternity leave are important but agree that a shift in values may be more important, so that people who spend only 40 hours a week at work and allow time in their lives for family and even other things, should still be as respected and well regarded as someone who spends 60 hours a week on work alone. I have in fact found that because I have interests outside my research, I am sometimes regarded as less ambitious. I think of myself as more balanced and well-rounded.

    I also think that broadening participation means making science and research more relevant and tangible to people outside the field, people that use the findings of science. I think a very critical issue here in the US (and I’m sure many places) is engaging non-scientists in science. We are in an age where science is not necessarily regarded in high esteem anymore and there are parts of our country that are regressing to disbelieving in science, in some cases just because of a distrust in the nature of science or in scientists. We need to do better in broadening participation in terms of people not engaged in research or science, and who are left to interpret results and who make decisions based on science (or unfortunately non-science). Science is great on its own, but it’s what is done with science or what actions are taken based on science that can change history and affect our future. We need to find ways to include non-scientists in understanding and respecting scientific findings in order for us to achieve widespread participation. I believe that would have it’s own feedback effect, and would in turn generate more interest and participation in STEM sciences.

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  10. Broadening participation means including disciplines that intersect with science in ways not often recognized. Students and faculty from the humanities: english, history, philosophy, religious studies, languages, cultural studies, and the arts, among others, should be included to bring as many voices to the conversation as possible regarding large, overarching problems such as climate change or genetic engineering. Only when we can learn to conceptualize applied scientific problems from a wide variety of viewpoints can our research be focused in ways that make the greatest impact while shedding light on embedded nature of science in society.

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    • Agreed. Cross-education between topics is where the idea of “University” began. Science, religion, literature, philosophy, entertainment and culture were all studied by all people at the university. We have “gen eds” at most schools, and are required to take history classes, regardless of the curriculum we are studying, but why don’t we have history classes that talk about invention and technology over time, rather than just what wars were fought and what leaders were in power? Unfortunately, if your mind is attracted to these kinds of cross-disciplines, you either have to wait for someone to write a show for NOVA or make it your own pursuit to research it in private.

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  11. I’m studying Marketing so I can help you with what Science … lacks.

    Having a huge base with 3 degree and 2 minors I’ll tell you its a combination of books that can be understood and teachers that care about students passing the course.

    There are lots of books such as stats or astronomy that are so technical that they are hard to follow or leave out practical steps to solve problems resulting in bad grades and dropped courses. I learned to avoid these courses like the plaque after awhile.

    Why am I going to waste my time and money on courses that are more likely to stress me out and fail me for having a life outside a classroom.

    There may be labs but at some point they fall short of helping students learn what they need to pass courses. I’ve had tutors with 20 years experience show me that a problem a teacher gave me was flat out wrong in the teachers answer using the textbook provided.

    Another major thing is job relevance and getting hired. There are limited positions and barriers to getting hired everywhere. Why study science if I am not some savant or going for a teaching track which pays 175k when fully tenured?

    Without better courses, teachers, and job placement programs you lack the appropriate draw to get more students engaged in the sciences.


  12. I absolutely agree with all of the comments above. My biggest concern is that STEM is not being implemented in our predominantly African-American school districts. Their primary focus is on reading and math due to test scores. Because of this focus, elementary teachers neglect science instruction which is where the foundation and the excitement for science begins. If we neglect providing our African-American children a foundation in science at an early age they flounder in the future. I believe this is why African-Americans are underrepresented in STEM careers as well as in research.

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  13. There are some ways in which the process of graduate admissions, and matriculation into grad school, can structurally disadvantage, or exclude, students who are in situations of “time poverty” prior to entering grad school, such as most of those who are financially impoverished, who have to work long hours to support themselves, who are parents/caregivers, or who have disability or chronic illness. (Given the way the economy has been going lately for young adults, we should not underestimate the number of brilliant and talented young people who are in these situations.) For example, when graduate programs require that students be matched with a mentor before they enter grad school (such as in the spring when they are admitted), this requirement makes it very unlikely that any student who is dealing with time poverty will have the time and information they need to find the right mentor and negotiate the right terms. An unfortunate choice of mentor, or just a lack of clear understandings between mentor and mentee, can be a difficult problem to fix later, and can really undermine the success of a student’s graduate program. To be honest, I think that rushed conditions for mentor/mentee matching, unless combined with ways of making it *very* easy, and socially acceptable, to change labs after entering the program, have the potential to mess up the graduate program of anyone who is not in so fortunate a position as to not need to work during the year prior to entering grad school.

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  14. I agree with much of the above — there is a need to reduce the “time poverty” we are creating by underfunding undergraduates from economically challenged families (leading them to look for convenient rather than rewarding classes, not being able to do labs, find matches etc) but also at grad and professional level (stop counting publications and look for fewer good quality ones, accept a 40 hour work week and respect some vacation time as such so that people with and without children can have a LIFE). But diversity also demands more visibility of “people like me” in specific fields and a culture of cooperation and interdisciplinarity rather than cut-throat competition for individual success. Most good science now demands teamwork but allocates rewards to individuals very unequally, and people who expect to be exploited and subordinated stay away from such situations.

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