For sake of human family, society must be redesigned with diversity in STEM fields
Diverse community essential to develop healthy solutions in STEM, not more of the same, writes Nusraat Masood
This column is an opinion by Nusraat Masood, director of WISE Kid-Netic Energy, a STEM outreach program, and IEEQ, a licensure pathway for internationally-educated engineers. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Creativity, curiosity, collaboration, ingenuity and, most importantly, diversity is what is needed in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields for our entire international human family to continue.
It is difficult to remember a time when the world relied on STEM professionals as much as it does right now. Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, has warned us that COVID-19 will stay with us for a few years. The world is still waiting for a vaccine for the virus that has destabilized almost every aspect of our daily lives, though a vaccine may not prove to be the solution we crave. A vaccine may make it easier, but the previous normal may be years away.
Technology is being stretched to crunch data faster, algorithms are being developed to model multitudes of scenarios and labs are busy around the clock. At the heart of all this precision are STEM professionals. It normally takes a decade to find a vaccine, but we are demanding one now — and unfortunately, this virus is not the only problem looming over us.
In the past, we have relied on iterative improvements, little steps forward, to maintain everyone's needs and expectations. Humanity has managed to progress to our limits of scientific understanding and now we need revolutionary ideas, approaches and concepts. How will we inhabit Mars? How will we cope with climate change? How will we harness different energies? How will we redesign a culture that offers us all an opportunity to experience joy and comfort?
At the root of design are people. People decide what to study and what to question in the STEM community. Think about a boardroom, for example: whoever is in the room influences the approach of inquiry, and that largely impacts the organization. If the same people with the same skill sets and perspectives go into that room every day, nothing new can be effectively generated. This can be a metaphor for ideas — you need diversity for healthy solutions to be developed.
To do this, we need people! We need all kinds of people! We need to expand and grow the STEM community with girls, Indigenous youth, youth of all colour and sexual orientation, youth with different physical and mental ability and youth facing socio-economic obstacles.
The STEM community would be better able to serve society's needs if the community from which it drew influence was more diverse.- Nusraat Masood
If we limit our STEM community, we will get more of the same. One hundred and one years ago, Winnipeg built an aqueduct by forcibly isolating the community of Shoal Lake 40. Only since the 2010s have we started to see car manufacturers consider physiological differences between female and male drivers. Until then, female drivers were left more vulnerable to injury and fatality.
Even in emerging fields like artificial intelligence, it is not an accident that the most misidentified people in facial recognition are women of colour.
It's not necessarily true that the STEM community has willfully, purposely or maliciously neglected to consider the needs of others, but the STEM community would be better able to serve society's needs if the community from which it drew influence was more diverse.
Learning can be frustrating, especially when the environment in which we learn has changed so suddenly and we feel as though we have lost control. In our family, we had a kindergartener at home when COVID-19 hit. We decided he had done enough learning by March and largely ignored emails and requests from his teacher. We needed to focus on our Grade 3 student. He cried because he missed his teacher. Hell, I cried because I missed his teacher. Working from home with no child care and limited access to their teacher was just not working.
I'm getting ready for the potential of a second wave. I'm collecting online resources and becoming more aware of what learning opportunities are being offered and I am trying to make learning more enjoyable and manageable for our boys.
My life partner and I are trying to raise our children to be conscientious and thoughtful. We would like our children to grow to find fulfilment in helping and thinking of others and not solely focusing on themselves. I do not think we are alone. STEM education is really important.
As I think about our family's needs, I am also deeply concerned about how different groups in our society will be accessing STEM education, and what that means for the next generation of STEM professionals. This virus has reminded us all of our vulnerabilities and the need to work together and build community.