An introduction to challenges faced in STEM education by Ike Mohar, Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) administrator in ZSL's Institute of Zoology
As an EDI administrator with a professional and graduate background in the social sciences, sociology, psychology, LGTBQ Studies, and Film Studies, and more recently working professionally in higher education as a lecturer and in film production, I have not had much experience in attending symposia focussing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). However, few people know that upon starting university and before transferring to what would become my alma mater, University of California, Santa Barbara (GO GAUCHOS!), I majored two years of my undergraduate degree in Marine Biology at a state university that was home to a world-renowned marine science laboratory.
During these two years, I found difficulties in communicating - not with my Marine Biology professors - but with my Math (not a typo as I am American!) and Chemistry professors. Although I loved and excelled in my marine science modules, I dreaded my math and chemistry courses. In one instance, I was made to take a Calculus exam - that I had missed due to attending my grandpa’s funeral - during a lecture, listening to the professor and fellow students solving equations out loud, whilst trying to focus on my exam questions. When I asked to sit in the hallway to complete my exam, I was accused by the lecturer of asking for more time, when all I wanted was an area for quiet study. I do not know if race was a factor, but it certainly might have been. My professor was a white male, and I was a teenage black-mixed LGBTQ disabled (though closeted and undiagnosed at the time) male, with a slight afro and no experience in higher education as a first-generation university student. What I am certain of, is that the professor, who did not know me from the other 40 students in the class, distrusted me when I asked a very reasonable request of a quiet space to complete an exam worth a third of my grade, that I had missed due to a bereavement.
After receiving a B- on that exam (in which I ran out of time to complete the problems), I dropped out of my degree, and switched to Sociology - having previously taken an introductory course with a dynamic lecturer, who happened to be a black woman, and at one point openly celebrated a trans student who decided to wear a wig and a dress for the first time to class. The difference in the way I was treated, at the time in the mid-2000s, by the STEM scientists vs social scientists was stark; and despite being welcomed and inspired by my Marine Biology professors, lecturers, and peers, ultimately I turned my back on STEM to avoid similar clashes with the Math and Chemistry professors, and what I saw as a potentially a frustrating career.
I often wonder what could have been, had I finished my Marine Biology degree; if perhaps the other professors would have communicated with me differently, or the importance of STEM had been better highlighted in the American working class, black, disabled, or LGBTQ communities. Thankfully, nearly two decades, later, not only has the STEM field across the globe realised the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion in STEM, but various institutions, organisations, and learned societies are putting focus and resources on how to communicate these values, as well as educational and professional opportunities, in STEM.
The Institute of Zoology’s ‘Science Communication to boost Diversity in STEM’ Symposium, held virtually on the mornings of 5 – 8 July 2021, did just that. The range of speakers offered a wealth of knowledge and experience in working with communities to increase communication, understanding, and engagement with opportunities in STEM and science itself. Despite knowing the schedule of events and previously meeting (at least virtually!) most of the panellists, I was engaged with the programme as if I was a fresh audience member with no knowledge of what was to come. In four more blog posts published over the coming weeks, I will take you through the symposium and highlight some of the inspirational and thought-provoking messages.
You can find out more about the symposium here, and watch the first session above, or head to our ZSL Science and Conservation YouTube channel to watch all other sessions:
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