As a STEM professor, what do you see your role is in addressing the lack of diversity in STEM?
My colleague tweeted this question from her student this past week. I realized I didn’t have a good answer. Mostly when I think about diversity, I think about specific things I have done, but I don’t think of them as my role, since I only came up with those actions ad-hoc, while the bigger question is about my overall approach to and vision of diversity. The question also asks specifically about my role as a professor in a STEM field, which again is not something I have considered.
Part of my hesitation in giving a clear answer to the question is that I do things that help diversity computer science, but diversity was not the main goal. For example, I’ve written about the lab where students must confront their implicit assumptions about how names, ages, genders, locations, phone numbers, etc. should be represented in a program. To use the obvious example, if they used a Boolean
is_male to represent gender, then their program necessarily will not be able to accommodate alternate gender identities. While this is an exercise that brings issues of diversity and bias to the foreground – and I wrote the previous blog post that way – for me it was more important that students understand that they are making implicit decisions as they write code. My goal was to make those decisions explicit, even given the possibility of students deliberately choose to only represent binary genders.
There are other examples as well: choosing to work with a community partner that serves urban LA was a semi-deliberate choice, and both expands my and my students’ horizons and serves as a high-impact practice to engage underrepresented students, but my thoughts were more focused on how designing for a non-tech-savvy user base would be a good challenge. Hosting Hours of Code may make computer science more accessible to women and students of color, but again most of my thoughts are on getting the general population excited about technology and growing the computer science program.
Reflecting on these examples, what I would argue is that diversity is not a terminal goal for me – that is, I don’t think I am pursuing diversity for the sake of diversity. What I think I am pursuing is helping my students be better computer scientists, better intellectuals, and better… people. And I think just from that goal there are many places where diversity matters. Some of my students are students of color and first-generation students, and the support and mentorship they might need is different from my other students whose parents have advanced degrees. My students who are studying computer science should know that the Silicon Valley tech startup bubble is just a very small, very rich, and very homogeneous part of the world, and writing programs that only target that population is neglecting the “unexotic underclass”. And for all potential future students, I want to make sure I am not restricted by the few students who have are lucky to have previous experience, and that others can see how the discipline can contribute to whatever other field they are exploring, including social justice and inclusion if they so choose.
As a STEM professor, I have the privilege of influencing how my students develop. My role in addressing the lack of diversity is to ensure that students have the resources to succeed. Whether this means support, mentoring, awareness, exposure, or opportunity, I hope to see these students become thoughtful individuals who themselves are concerned with inclusion.