STEM Education Research: Saying the Unsayable

Last week I attended the 2014 meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education in Indianapolis to look over the current landscape of STEM inclusion efforts from kindergarten through graduate education. This is a huge meeting, with thousands of participants from hundreds of international universities, engineering firms, and funding agencies, along with publishers of educational materials and software, all mingling in something like a million square feet of meeting rooms and exposition halls. It is a social setting utterly central to the reproduction of professional engineering in the U.S. and globally.  Surely this is where STEM education finds its largest, most energized audience…its most powerful allies.

Yet power was the one thing barely discussed during the four-day meeting, whether we mean by that the relative authority and influence of engineering professions, of engineering educators, or of the social scientists who study those enterprises…all of course also relative to that of students, institutional staff, consumers or community members. I heard just a handful of attempts at political, philosophical and moral self-examination; in short, moments of talking about power. Those few encounters stood in sharp contrast to the well intentioned and highly systematic but largely uncritical research and conversation that made up the vast majority of scholarship on offer.

In the latter category I’ll take the following as outliers: First, a surpassingly superficial plenary offered by Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana and now president of Purdue University, in which technological innovation and the expansion of corporate opportunity were (naively? disingenuously?) said to assure a uniformly happy and prosperous citizenry. A panel on the “Grand Challenges” of twenty-first century engineering as outlined by the National Academy of Engineering predictably included some voices supremely confident in the value and safety of technical solutions to all manner of human difficulties (even those difficulties brought about by technological enthusiasm in the first place).  But these were the claims of the truly elect in the world of U.S. STEM policy and programming, and in a way of course their sweep and apparent optimism doesn’t surprise.

More typical were papers encouraging us to focus on enhancing student self-efficacy, on filling the nation’s high-tech “skills gap,” and other projects which I have previously pointed to in this blog as often disguising neoliberal ideologies that in fact diminish democratic opportunity structures. A lot of the STEM ed research I heard honed in on students’ individual capacity and achievement as if decades of critical scholarship and activism around class, race, gender, LGBTQ identities, physical and intellectual ablism, immigration and other linkages of identity and occupational marginalization in America signaled only the existence of superficial identifiers instead of deep, persistent social inequities.  One paper by a community college STEM instructor characterized her students as today being “of lower caliber…less motivated, less driven” than those whom she encountered 10 years ago, a disparaging characterization that seemed to dismiss her earlier point that many in her classes had experienced severe economic disadvantage.  Her worry that, “we’ve enabled these students for too long” doesn’t seem to me to hold much inclusive promise.

Tellingly, I heard almost no researchers at ASEE reflect upon their choices to look at gender or race or geography among such categorical options, or ask about who is heard and unheard in our STEM education conversations.  One large “town hall” session explicitly focused on the normally un-askable question, “Why is change so hard in engineering education?” and that seems like a very promising step. But the risks of researching such perturbing subjects to those employed by engineering schools remain huge; there are currently few incentives to questioning the value of our own intellectual and professional commitments. I’ll be reading the proceedings to see if these kinds of reflections appeared in other papers that I may have missed.

By contrast, the folks I heard at ASEE who were explicitly concerned with power and privilege insisted that we make our own certainty and authority our objects of study.  That is: They urge us to acknowledge the powerful subjectivities at work in our own understandings of engineering education.

Consider a paper by Donna Riley, who directly confronted our confidence in evidence-based research and articulated the social construction of that confidence as an instrument of (our own) occupational privilege.  Another paper, by Julia D. Thompson, Mel Chua and Cole H. Joslyn explored the authors’ own spiritualities (vitally, a category distinct in their view from religiosity) as integral to their identity as engineering educators.  Both papers expanded what is sayable in the meeting rooms of ASEE. None of this work, however, suggested that any particular subjectivity will improve or for that matter damage the practice or teaching of engineering.  To have said so would be to imply a core object that is “good engineering”… an entity subject to improvement or damage in some absolute sense. These authors are far too sophisticated to imagine an objectively measurable gain or loss to some idealized notion of engineering. Rather, it is the social relations of STEM they wish to expose along with all the value-laden, contingent judgments about engineering skill and knowledge that are entailed by those relations.

These and a few other instances at ASEE thereby provided a hard look at the ways in which ascribed identities insistently determine eligibility in STEM occupations. The nature of true criticality is that it must admit the possibility that desired change may not happen; here, that means saying that the labor and knowledge systems we call engineering may not tolerate profoundly democratic reform…and these bold papers got very close to that precipice.

But something else going on in that convention center helped pull me, at least, back from that precipice. A remarkable move this year to schedule 12 sessions of LGBTQ Safe Zone/Positive Space ally training throughout the ASEE conference, sponsored by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) and four engineering schools (at Rowan University, University of Southern California, Texas A&M, and Michigan Tech), leapfrogged over other tentative, uncritical nods to STEM inclusion at the meeting. Not 1 training session, let’s note, but 12… a choice with the potential, I think fulfilled, to pervade the event with a sense that the social conditions of engineering education and our ideas about identity matter. All of these efforts have raised the bar for what we will call serious, inclusive STEM ed interventions from here on out.

Money Talks. (Now will it please be quiet?)

The idea that 4-year college degrees and liberal arts curricula waste students’ time and money, which I’ve lately been writing about in this blog,  is definitely spreading among those who seem most easily to get media exposure.  The recent words of Bill Gross, one of the country’s most revered bond investors,  have been heard across the land. The claims made in his company “Investment Outlook” column for July 2011, titled “School Daze, School Daze,” have been picked up widely by the business press. I saw them cited yesterday in a Philadelphia Inquirer business column piece about my own university,  “PhillyDeal: Drexel University Plans to Redirect its Expansion” (in which they were, happily for me, roundly contradicted by Drexel’s President John Fry). […and thanks to Scott Knowles for sharing the Inky article.]

When I looked into Gross’ original statement on the PIMCO (his firm) website, I went back to being unhappy. As have others in the last few months, Gross found “facts” that militate against providing the familiar college experience for many Americans. He writes off college as something that, even in a thriving economy, did little for the minds of those who attended:

…a degree represented that the graduate could “party hearty” for long stretches of time and establish social networking skills that would prove invaluable later at office cocktail parties or interactively via Facebook.

–Bill Gross, July 2011

In the face of the “erosion of our manufacturing base” going on today,  Gross sees the traditional comprehensive undergraduate immersion serving largely as a “vacation” for young people that does them, and the economy, little good. He says it is time to do away with the “stultifying and outdated”  idea of widespread enrollment in 4-year curricula. He would steer the nation towards “technical education and apprenticeship programs instead of liberal arts.”

Gross is playing an unfortunate zero-sum game with higher ed, perhaps counting the hours in the school day and finding that there just isn’t time for the seeming luxury of  humanities education.  But for a clever guy who is not entirely closed to hybrid solutions [see below],  he’s being notably uncreative here. For one thing, project-based technical learning,  centered on interdisciplinary blends of liberal arts and STEM content, is seen by many educators as the most powerful instructional approach to come along in years.  John Fry, for one,  seems to think that’s the case. He’d find  plenty of folks involved with Liberal Education at the American Society for Engineering Education to back him up, too.

In his column, Gross corrects a common error in discussions of America’s so-called lost manufacturing jobs by noting that  “high tech paragons”  like Apple, Microsoft, and Google “never were employers of high school or B.A. college graduates in significant numbers,” having sought offshore workers for hardware manufacture all along.  He also, unusually, supports a larger role for government in seeding job creation and providing job preparation for Americans:

In times of extremis, pushing on the private sector string is ineffective…Government must temporarily assume a bigger, not a smaller role in this economy, if only because other countries are dominating job creation with kick-start policies that eventually dominate global markets…

–Bill Gross, July 2011

Along these lines, citing economics and policy writer Fareed Zakaria, Gross calls for something like a new G.I. Bill focused on  “mid-tech” skills that will boost employment and productivity in the nation.  I share that belief in a larger role for government in higher ed,  but not the lowered bar.

If Gross feels that money rather than time is the problem, consider this point I’ve made before: Maximizing (rather than shrinking) opportunities for intellectual development among America’s citizens, opportunities historically provided by our institutions of higher learning,  may only seem fiscally imprudent  because we have to keep paying instead for things like wars, corporate tax-cuts and other publicly funded  undertakings that bring little long-term economic benefit.

But here’s something I haven’t really thought about before. This kind of wholesale indictment of the humanities and liberal arts in American higher education is downright nihilistic: With any perspective at all, we can see that it dismisses hundreds of thousands of hours that Americans of every class, ethnic background,  national origin, and political persuasion have spent in college classrooms, for the last 250 years, learning and thinking about human culture. To say these hours were wasted suggests a  spectacular and possibly tragic failure of imagination.

…and a failure of self-knowledge: Gross himself holds a psychology degree from Duke University (a school to which he has donated millions).  He now refers to this as his “own four year vacation.”  Does he really think his business acumen, understanding of world market behaviors, communication skills and (yes, we must say it) wide social influence today, what we might fairly call his own “social networking skills,”  have nothing to do with the things he learned as a young person at that institution? In “School Daze” Gross describes “professorial tenure” as something that stands in the way of improved productivity for the country…but I’m guessing his education at Duke included more tenured professors than adjuncts and teaching faculty.  And who exactly does he thinks generates the scientific and technical knowledge, the IP,  on which so much corporate R&D in the U.S. now relies? Adjunct instructors? Graduate teaching assistants? Nope: Tenured university professors  (absolutely all of whom started out by getting four-year bachelor’s degrees, not training as apprentices, let us add…).

Perhaps it is a case of the critic speaking about others.  Perhaps Gross feels that his talents and interests deserved the cultivation a superb college education delivered, but those of others  do not. We can’t be sure because like so many other who offer these recommendations, Gross doesn’t offer his criteria for which young people should pursue “good technical skills but limited college education.”

If  anti-higher-ed ideas like Gross’ are going to perpetuate among those of wealth and influence in our country, I’d like a little clarification, please: College is worthless…for which of us, exactly? If proponents of a diminished world of university education make that part of their thinking explicit, I think we might hear more objections from the individuals and communities consigned to mid-tech training.

Better yet, perhaps these short-sighted, elitist, and altogether less-than-constructive visions for America’s higher ed need not be shared at all.