Enriching STEM: Creating Equity in and Beyond the Lab, Event Recap

In the sciences, because we are working to better understand the world and systems within it, a diversity of opinions and viewpoints is absolutely necessary, especially in light of the notorious lack of diversity that can be seen throughout scientific history. In recent years, STEM fields have made important strides towards equity. For example many universities including CUNY are implementing more sophisticated guidelines, and funding agencies like NIH are including incentives for equity within grant funding. Yet it is critical to remember that challenges continue to this day, and so do efforts to increase equity, particularly for women, minorities, and otherwise underrepresented groups. In our Digital Friday session, Enriching STEM: Creating Equity in and Beyond the Lab, we were fortunate to be joined by Elizabeth Waters, PhD, the Acting Director of STEM Outreach at The Cooper Union Albert Nerken School of Engineering, and Jessica Desamero, a fifth-year graduate student in CUNY’s Biochemistry Ph.D. program, to discuss an important branch of these efforts: public science initiatives.

Public science is the effort to make scientific theory and ideas accessible to the public, and in turn provide opportunities for public engagement and buy-in. The “ivory tower” stereotype can unfortunately be all too true, alienating the public from academic findings. Working to bridge the divide between the public and the academy can help bolster education and guide public policy. Most importantly though, is understanding that even people without scientific training both can and should have a basic understanding of scientific and medical thought. Possibly the most critical outcome of public science efforts is simply increasing engagement from non-experts.

One major theme of our conversation was how public science efforts offer the opportunity to get at this problem from the ground floor. We discussed a number of efforts in NYC working to build educational opportunities to get the public excited and more able to approach learning opportunities as they grow older, including BioBus and the World Science Festival (innovative science outreach programs all three panelists have worked with) and K-12 outreach programs (such as the STEM outreach programs Dr. Waters directs at Cooper Union).

We touched on a number of thought-provoking questions over the course of our conversation. How do we ensure our public teaching exercises allow for self-discovery and conversation about the science? How do we combat the myth that scientific knowledge is only for certain people? And, aptly in the time of COVID-19, how does public science take on even more importance during public health crises?

Perhaps most relevant to an academic audience was our discussion of how to increase the relevance of public science within the academy – how do we encourage graduate students and professors to engage with these efforts, when in the current culture research and funding so often take precedence?

Altogether we had a productive conversation touching on these and other questions raised by our audience, learning a great deal about public science initiatives throughout NYC, and even learning more about programs here at CUNY, such as the Illumination Space at the Advanced Science Research Center. Considering the breadth of these topics, there is of course much more discussion to be had. I’m particularly excited to continue this work with the Futures Initiative and for the academy in general.

You can view the conversation on YouTube by following this link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4X1D2JjYswk

Photo credit: Andrew Cribb / CribbVisuals.com

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