Diversity of perspectives in STEM

Last week I was talking about computer science, implicit bias, and climate change to high school students of my friend Lisa Mason, a native Hawaiian STEM educator and scientist working on the Big Island, Hawai’i.

Lisa’s goal as a teacher is to decolonize STEM in her classroom and create authentic cultural spaces for learning. Lisa wants her students to develop their sense of place in Hawai’i and to feel empowered through science. She offers them numerous extracurricular activities applying what they learn in the classroom in authentic settings, e.g., native tree planting and forest restoration, watershed maintenance, hiking, fishpond studies. Watch Lisa talking about her vision.

The purpose of my talk, similar to most of my talks on the Big Island, was to inspire students to learn computer science and consider a STEM career. The problem of the low numbers of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders going into STEM-relevant careers is well known and discussed. However, it is mostly discussed in terms of barriers preventing students from succeeding in the academic environment. I invite you to look at it from a different point of view.

In the ‘western’ science, the main focus is on acquiring knowledge, at any cost. The acquired knowledge is valued even more if it leads to technological progress and economic profit. Successful scientists are celebrated and promoted. As a consequence, the academic system forces scientists to market themselves and their research. Topics and approaches are often chosen accordingly, to be catchy and marketable.

As I learned from my Hawaiian friends and university colleagues, for most Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, their local community is in the center of their value system. Science and knowledge are important as long as they give back to the community. While ecological thinking is relatively new in the western world, it has been deeply embedded into the Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders cultures for centuries.

Hawaiian students willing to pursue an academic career might feel strongly conflicted. The requirement to market themselves contradicts Hawaiian values. They are doing science not to become famous and make a career, but to support the community. How is it important for the community if they are writing papers and giving presentations at conferences? The western scientific paradigm forces us to detach ourselves from any cultural and personal background to be objective, which contradicts Hawaiian identity. The western academic excellence system is built in a way that does not encourage a connection to a place. To be a successful scientists means, among other things, to work at a top institution. Local colleges and universities serve as filters for more prestigious places. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Berkeley — this is where everyone wants to end up. Being good at science and staying home, with a strong connection to your local community and environment, is considered to be a kind of downshifting. Watch my friend Misaki Takabayashi talking about these issues.

According to Misaki, academia currently fails to embrace true diversity, because it focuses on appearances rather than perspectives. Nowadays you can get into academia no matter your gender or skin color (of course it’s still not equally accessible to everyone), but you should leave your values and perspectives at home and adapt to the system. This is what I believe should change. Not only different approaches to knowledge, but also different values and perspectives can strongly benefit science especially with respect to making it serve our planet. Hawaiian and other indigenous values are not barriers for doing science. It’s western academia that surrounds itself with barriers.

I was trying to communicate to Lisa’s students that STEM and computer science can help them to care about their environment and communities. At the same time, their unique cultural and individual perspectives are very valuable for science and academia.

Watch my friends from around the world talking about diversity and sense of place.

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