Field STEM…Observations on Diversity in Birding

Birdwatching. Rock collecting. Stargazing. These science-centered field activities have lately taken on the label of “out of school experiences” for some STEM educators, and “outreach” for the clubs and organizations that sponsor them.  Here, Jesse Smith, Philadelphia-based writer and curator,  guest blogs, on the complex issue of inclusion in one “recreational” science:

Last weekend, birders, field guide writers, state and federal government employees, and representatives of various Audubon chapters and local ornithological societies gathered at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia in search of a way to increase minority participation in birdwatching. Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding was a day full of good intentions…and missed opportunities.

Biologist and author John Robinson (Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers) laid the statistical foundation for the group’s claims. Data from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forest Service surveys demonstrates the unsurprising fact that Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian populations are not self-identifying as “birdwatchers” in numbers that reflect the racial makeup of the general population. Birdwatching, in other words, is a disproportionately white community. Indeed, the “average” birder (Robinson’s quotation marks) is a 50-year-old Caucasian female who earns more than $50,000 a year and lives in the South. Such data is not surprising: Multiple surveys reveal similarly low minority participation rates in outdoor and nature-related activities.

The most interesting discussion explored possible barriers to birding. Susan Bonfield, who oversees International Migratory Bird Day (an initiative that provides materials and assistance to more than 520 locations that host migratory bird programming), identified awareness as the largest barrier for Latino populations. In 2000, IMBD began producing Spanish-language materials at the request of participating sites, who noticed a rise in their local Spanish-speaking populations. The materials went used, however; when IMDB subsequently conducted a survey of 1,000 Latinos, they found that more than 90% were unaware of the opportunities present at their local natural sites. Other panelists cited as barriers the lack of birding mentors in minority communities, African-Americans’ associating forests with lynching, and local natural areas’ histories as sites of Ku Klux Klan activity.

As interesting as the barriers discussed were those things not identified as barriers. Panelists discussed socio-economic factors such as leisure time, mobility, access to natural areas, and financial resources; but rather than being impediments to birding, these were presented as obstacles true birders could overcome: One panelist shared the story of a group of young people in Philadelphia who would walk miles to birding sites. Others explained that expensive binoculars are unnecessary. And of course birds are prolific — from inner city Philadelphia to Tierra del Fuego. Birdwatching, then, is as an activity open to everyone, everywhere.
Missing from all of this was any reflexivity on the part of the birdwatching community. Indeed, any discussion of “barriers to birding” diverts attention away from the activity itself; such an approach assumes that problems lies not within birding, but outside it, either among the targeted audiences or in some intermediate zone between audience and activity. Doing so allowed birdwatchers to avoid questioning the competitive nature of their activity, of an achievement system based on the size of one’s “life list” (which can only grow with time and travel). Nobody becomes a towering figure in American birding as an expert in the birds of Philadelphia.

Participants also failed to examine the contexts through which they were exposing young people to birding and the natural world. A representative from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional office effused over Heinz Refuge’s success in connecting young people who had “run afoul of the law” with nature. These young people — many of them young, African-American men, according to the speaker — came to the refuge to fulfill community service requirements. Here, they worked with the maintenance crew (and not the education or scientific arms of the refuge). The head of maintenance successfully connected these young people to the refuge, instilling in them a sense of ownership. When they returned post-service, they didn’t come to see the refuge manager, she pointed out, but to see the head of maintenance. Throwing the refuge another bone, she remarked that these youngsters “appreciate the fact there’s a paved trail where they can feel somewhat safe because it is scary going out in the woods.” In other words, the refuge offers moral improvement not just via nature-at-large, but also by way of maintenance work and a short paved trail that is less threatening than the refuge’s miles of “natural” trails.

But so what, right? Not everyone will be (or wants to be) a birding authority. And connecting populations (all populations, representing many forms of diversity) with their environment is a worthy pursuit. But when this connection comes via birding — via an activity in which participants’ success may be limited by factors such as leisure time, mobility, access to natural areas, and financial resources — or by way of the community service as described above, the effort risks reinforcing the marginality of those targeted audiences. The birdwatching community can work to raise the percentages of minority birding enthusiasts, but it would do well to simultaneously address the status of those enthusiasts within the field to avoid repeating the same kinds of disparities it seeks to redress.

Of course, this would require a reflexivity that is unsurprisingly absent from most realms. Birders at the conference, I’m sure, would find any critique of this event a surprise, laden as it with the good intention of making more inclusive a pursuit that they unquestioningly value for both themselves and the greater world. They’re not actively avoiding reflection. They may even be open to such criticality, should it be presented to them. Pursuits that deal with issues of diversity (and, though unexplored in this post, the environment and conservation), obviously have a place for this kind of thinking; the trick is in getting it in there.  –Jesse Smith

Saying No (Loudly) to Michael Ellsberg

I can hear the disgust in his voice.  When Michael Ellsberg tells us that college is a waste of time for many creative Americans, based on his observation that our most successful inventors and entrepreneurs (such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg) typically never finish their undergraduate degrees, his contempt for higher education is palpable…even before we get to the point where he says that for the sake of our flailing economy students need to learn about sales in college, but are “more likely to  take a course on why sales (and capitalism) are evil.”

“Evil”? Really?  I’d love a list of the professors Mr. Ellsberg has heard, first-hand, actually making such claims.   The New York Times published Ellsberg’s latest op-ed about the shortcomings of  U.S.  higher education on Sunday under the title, “Will Dropouts Save America?” and I do have to thank the paper for framing it as a question.  But I have no patience with the crude and self-serving picture Ellsberg  paints of the American university in his answer.

The folks he mentions are in some ways grand role models, sure…. ingenious, self-motivated and energetic as can be.  But the idea that we can characterize the entirety of post-secondary learning and teaching in U.S  as an impediment to such vision and creativity is below contempt. This is the same higher ed system that has  for generations carried countless children of farmers and factory workers into science and technology and business careers;  that has –hellllooo!?—brought us the highly educated thinkers that design and build the devices conceived by a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,  and  the massively complex data-handling  systems that enable a global-scale social network like Mark Zuckerberg’s.

Most pertinent: Many of those enabling technologies, not to mention hugely profitable pharmaceutical, biotech, and material innovations of recent decades, were born in start-ups run by university faculty members, themselves holders of college degrees…all apparently in spite of the “creativity stifling” character of our university classrooms detected by Mr. Ellsberg.

With his strong message that American college-goers are being duped, I can’t help but think Ellsberg starts out not simply from an excited appreciation of human inventiveness, but also from a sense of distaste for the people who teach in universities.  Such as myself. But here’s why I’m bothering to write about him… A few days ago, the Chicago Tribune published an article by Jesse Washington titled, “What’s behind the declining numbers of blacks in science, tech, engineering and math fields?” The article documents woeful statistics:

In 2009 African-Americans received 1 percent of degrees in science technologies, and 4 percent of degrees in math and statistics…

As many others have found, Washington reports that the reasons for such low minority representation in STEM fields are complex: students’ self-doubt, a lack of role models and mentors, pressure to earn money quickly, and discouraging academic environments rife with racial stereotyping.  But if the causes are complex, the results are clear:

The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degree has fallen during the last decade.

Horatio Alger stories like the one Ellsberg disseminates, that find the sources of American technical innovation primarily in the efforts of self-taught individual geniuses, do not merely mislead about the origins of most new technologies. Such stories also deny the role played by class, race, gender, national origin and a host of other identities in bringing about both the presence of some entrepreneurs and the absence of other Americans in the world of technical innovation.

Surely Ellsberg’s selective logic  would do little for the folks at Boeing, GE and Xerox, cited by Washington as worried about the nation’s scientific talent pool and dedicated to raising black STEM participation.  Those companies aren’t merely worried about their own hiring needs;  they know a nation without a thriving tech sector won’t support markets for their own products.  These corporations are as eager for innovation and as savvy about its wider effects as anyone in the country. Hard to imagine they  would find Ellsberg’s derisive approach to formal education, to the social and intellectual empowerment provided by the college classroom and lab,  any more constructive than I do.  We need far more opportunities for such empowerment in America, not fewer.