Op-Ed: Step up, STEM

Walker Orr, Senior

If you’re a STEM student, or an aspiring STEM student, who was disappointed by your professors’ disengagement in #ScholarStrike, you’re not alone. When 65% of professors in your departments hold classes as usual compared to the 35% in the social sciences and humanities [1], it is reasonable to question your professors’ commitment to institutional and social change. There were understandable reasons to hold class as usual, such as the cumulative nature of course material and the need to prepare students for high-stakes tests such as the MCAT and GRE. Nonetheless, the foregone opportunity for a true movement of professor-led racial education outweighs the slight benefits of an extra day or two of instruction.

For Natural Science professors to not honor #ScholarStrike at similar rates to professors in other departments sends the message that instruction in the Natural Sciences is more important and that STEM students deserve special treatment. Critically, it furthers the dangerous idea among students in STEM (especially privileged White students) that science is fundamentally separate from, rather than entangled in, political and social questions. Politics and underlying social divisions such as racial, class and gender inequalities impact research and medicine in many important ways. It determines what research questions get funded, which fields are seen as important and which aren’t, how the public perceives scientific research and medical advice, what job opportunities are available for scientists, what technology is worth developing and whose ends they will serve. Any student who goes through undergraduate education in the Natural Sciences without being required to grapple with these questions is unprepared to participate responsibly and meaningfully in the practice of science.

I’d like to close by connecting these issues to the COVID-19 crisis. This summer, while working for the Biology department, I attended a panel on COVID-19 hosted by professors in the BBMB program. Many professors lamented the lack of COVID test distribution and noted a sense of powerlessness they felt in the face of our murderous political response to the virus and the lack of social acceptance of scientific guidance around wearing masks. To natural scientists, every problem looks like a nail — then 200,000 people die on the watch of a medical system that has been hollowed out over the past five decades. Then, their hammers start to look silly. Economic inequality and unequal access to healthcare is the cause of the unique severity of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, inequities which are directly or indirectly related to racism and the racial history of the United States. Recognizing these inequities and the role that academics can play in addressing them was the point of #ScholarStrike. Just as we in the United States can’t seem to acknowledge our collective responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so do professors at Whitman seem to have difficulty acknowledging our collective responsibility to educate students and to be role models for rethinking the role of their work and institutions in a time when there is increasing possibility for change.

If you’re a student in STEM, don’t give up. The tools of science are incredibly powerful for understanding our world, appreciating its beauty and making possible new relationships between people and their labor. Instead, do the work of educating yourself about racism, economic inequality and the ways in which social and political forces guide scientific inquiry and funding. Ask your professors why they didn’t cancel classes, and support them when they question Whitman’s priorities. Make friends with students who spend their days in Maxey and Olin and pick their brains about how our society ticks. Let’s step up, STEM.

[1] Based on an informal survey I conducted Sept. 16. Anonymous raw results and methodology are available upon request; please email me at [email protected]