Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Identity, Likert and STEM Education


My job at the moment is to help improve the structure of computing education across the United States with a particular focus on broadening participation.  In the federal lexicon, broadening participation means increasing the number of students of color and people with disabilities who have access to the STEM enterprise generally and to computing in particular.  The effort to improve STEM education is real and laudable and there is a long list of people sounding the clarion call for educational and occupational equity in the 21st century.  The effort, however, appears wholly disconnected from the historical context and contemporary reality that makes it necessary in the first place.  Many of the proposed solutions I see are various creative forms of exposure.  Expose our students to computing, get them engaged and feeling good about themselves and they will pursue computing, or STEM fields of some kind. Feeling good about themselves – or in academic speak, demonstrating a statistically significant increase in their sense of self-efficacy – is at the heart of the disconnection.  I do not see in these efforts an attempt to educate our students about themselves, about the nature of their identity as black and brown children and the relationship of that identity to the condition they find themselves in.  Creative means of exposure to computing, often by well meaning white academicians, misses the need for a deep-seated reason to learn. The identities of black students cannot be measured on a simple Likert scale of self-efficacy. To assume that it can be is an oversight born of the limited vision of privilege.

Over the past several months, it struck me that there was no conversation in my workplace about the nearly monthly murder of black people at the hands of police.  No discussion, no commentary, no lament, about the possible effects that all this brutality, death, rage and urban uprising might have on the very students we are purportedly out to help.  There was no consideration about the context in which our young people’s identities are being forged.  Hardly any interpretation was offered about the factors that affect their decisions about their futures beyond the narrow consideration of the availability of appropriate STEM courses.  Our STEM agenda appeared perfectly isolated from the racial tempest brewing in the country, particularly in the urban centers where black and Hispanic students often live.

This summer, tired of the innumerable reports on the need for more STEM graduates and broadening participation, I read books about black history and identity.  I read the Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. I read A Copper Sun by Sharon Draper and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.  I read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I read Between the World and Me by Te-Nehisi Coates.  In addition, I read a lot about the stubborn proportion of black young people who are poor, nearly 40 percent.  I read about the increasing segregation in the country’s most populous cities.  Atlanta where I live, and Washington DC where I work, are the number 2 and 6 most segregated cities in the United States.  What all of this reinforced for me is that without dealing with the ugly reality of race such as it is, we cannot make significant headway towards meeting our larger STEM goals. Our tinkering around the margins will certainly allow for satisfaction and some release from guilt, depending on which side of the line you stand, but it will not substantively move the needle. 

Dealing with race does not mean that STEM educators and policy makers need to solve the American race problem.  It does mean that reducing the complexity, honor and terror of black and Hispanic students’ experiences to a Likert scale of self-efficacy is an insulting pretense of concern.  The programs for sustained learning in STEM fields will likely only be effective if they are complemented by teaching students about themselves, about the context of their education, about the profiteering on their backs, about their extraordinary potential and the legacy they represent.  Their motivation and true self-efficacy has to come from a deep appreciation of themselves.  It cannot come from a week-long summer platter of exposure.

Herein lies an opportunity for the well-intentioned of the STEM world to collaborate with the hardened historical realists of the race world – the real world.  The enormity of the challenge is such that no one who is truly concerned can afford to crumble in the face of the personal difficulties and vulnerability that confronting race directly will mean.  Now we, the STEM practitioners and advocates, will have to be exposed.  How does looking at American race affect our self-efficacy?  What happens when Ta-Nehisi hands the Likert scale back to Likert?