The Struggle for Undergraduate STEM Reform: Why We Need to Fix Ourselves First

Throughout my career, I have visited the National Science Foundation (NSF) headquarters many times as a program officer, external reviewer, or invited speaker. I am all too familiar with the entrance drill—show my identification, be courteous and polite, comply with security measures. So, two years ago—pre-COVID—when my gorgeous, much beloved, four-inch-heeled shoes triggered the metal detector’s alarm as I was entering the NSF building, I knew what to do. But, despite my repeated offers to remove my shoes, a male security officer ordered me to assume the position—place my hands on the table, spread my legs apart, and undergo a pat-down of my legs.

Last summer, after the National Science Board—the NSF’s governing body—issued a June 2020 statement calling for “increased inclusion of Black people in [science and engineering] at all levels,” I was invited to share my perspective on the topic at a virtual meeting of the board. There, I described my experience at the security check. However, it was not until later that I came to realize how easy it is for us, as scientists, to hold on too tightly to our own perspectives and, more importantly, discount the perspectives of others.

Following the board meeting, I met with an NSF office head to discuss what had happened to me at the security check; he showed me the video of the encounter. It was stunning! On the one hand, the video showed an exchange between a security officer and a Black woman visitor that—seen at only one distant angle without audio—seemed almost cordial. On the other hand, the footage failed to capture the guard’s facial expression or his threatening tone. It also didn’t capture my fear and confusion or my repeated pleas to be allowed to simply remove
my shoes.

Though I still feel I had good reason to be sensitive about being frisked, in that meeting with the NSF office head, I admittedly became the worst of who we are at times as STEM educators. I held on to my narrative—that I, as a Black woman, had been unduly screened and unnecessarily touched—as the only reality. And I justified it with my belief about what should matter in proving it. But, as is often the case, the other narratives and perspectives—that of the guard, the office head, and also the video itself—that I needed to embrace were the hardest for me to consider. Still, I listened to the office head. He listened to me. Then a shift occurred. Surprisingly, the shift was in me. I saw that, despite the all-too-often conflicting viewpoints that can exist between colleagues, we held one particular viewpoint in common: we had a shared rage about the deeply painful history and present reality of what it means to live as a Black woman in America.

Far too often, Black women like me, and so many others from groups that have been historically marginalized in STEM, are made to “assume some kind of position” as we navigate the hostility of a disciplinary culture that was never intended for us but has, nevertheless, benefited from us. On varying levels, that “position” has rendered our perspectives—and us—unheard, unseen, and even shut out of STEM. Whenever I’m asked what should be done to change this, my answer is no different than what educator Marva Collins said decades ago—“fix ourselves first!” Indeed, we can never change what is happening around us if we do not change what is happening within us.

For me, change within began with the shared humanity I found with the NSF office head. Yielding to that shared humanity meant that I could show up as both Black and a woman and as both a scientist and a human. It meant that both of our lived experiences were valid and true. And it also underscored that our different perspectives—and that of the video—could, and must, exist simultaneously. But no shared humanity, in and of itself, can be expected to reform an entire disciplinary culture that stubbornly holds on to beliefs like race doesn’t matter, high failure rates mean rigor, and underrepresentation depicts excellence. More is required of us.

Frederick Douglass posited that reform requires that we struggle. However, I am convinced that it is not enough to know only the struggle of reform; we must also know the struggle of situating our humanity at the center of STEM reform. Right now, far too few of us know this struggle. And without all of us knowing it, we can never, as Douglass argued, hope for progress.

The madness of 2020 stoked much conversation and even brought some change—but too little in the way of progress. I am persuaded that progress will come only after the struggle within ourselves has begun; and that struggle can only come with an unconditional embrace of our own humanity. For me, this means abandoning my own tendencies toward being too quick to respond, too steeped in my own perspective, too removed from the perspective of others, or too tempered in my acts of justice. It also means pursuing only those STEM reform strategies likely to lead to a surprising shift in my perspective—like the one I had with the NSF office head. Surprises, though, are not usually part of the code by which this die-hard physiologist lives—I believe in the certainty and efficiency of autonomic systems, feedback loops, calculated perturbances, and precise corrections. But if embracing surprise means avoiding the trappings of doing science (and, by proxy, science reform) without humanity, then I am going to change.

My advice for the reader who is willing to change is as simple as it is complex—take time to reflect. At the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the chaos of COVID-19 has ushered in a season of organizational self-care as we have reflected on our shared rage about racism in STEM and sought out opportunities where surprising shifts can occur for us and the STEM reform community we serve. We have purged our professional development programming of the kind of quick-fix offerings that can be interpreted as all-you-need-to-know handbooks, toolkits, or guides. These are too easily forgotten, too often mistaken for true reform, or too imprecisely adapted to result in any successful outcome. We feel strongly that the work of undergraduate STEM reform should look less like a research protocol and more like what Frederick Douglass suggested: a “patient, enduring, honest, unremitting, and indefatigable work, into which the whole heart is put.”

Indeed, if anything is worth doing, it should be done with the whole heart. Certainly, the reform of undergraduate STEM education is worth doing. But, in general, I believe STEM reform pays too little attention to the heart, inevitably perpetuating racial inequities and failing to empower faculty to teach, train, or lead in ways that would no longer require any STEM student or faculty of color to assume an unfavorable position. At AAC&U, we have put our whole heart into refreshing and enhancing our highly acclaimed STEM faculty professional and leadership development institutes, especially through features like the My Tenure Trek® diversity simulation. We are using our kaleidoscope of perspectives to bring all other perspectives into clear view. And we are calling forward our shared humanity—and, indeed, our shared rage—to reflect on ourselves so we can reform better. In the end, aren’t we all worth it?

This essay is dedicated to the many undergraduate STEM reformers—faculty, administrators, and staff alike—whose disciplines, struggle, and humanity I share.

Kelly Mack is the vice president for undergraduate STEM education and executive director of Project Kaleidoscope at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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