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Broadening access to science

Posted by Arjendu on January 12, 2008

(Warning: I am speaking off the top of my head. I expect that some of what I say will rub people the wrong way, and I hope to learn from responses to this post, either on the blog or directly by email or by phone call. To find my contact information for the latter, just google me).

There’s a group of us on campus — faculty and staff — who have informally and formally met and struggled for a few years with the issue of diversity in the sciences (see the post below on Freeman Hrabowski’s visit to Carleton and associated events at the end of January). I’m more formally involved with ‘steering’ this now as part of my CISMI responsibilities, so expect occasional thoughts about such issues on this blog.

Today: What motivates this group?

Not surprisingly, different things. From my end, the challenge is why Carleton’s student and faculty population in the sciences looks different from the general Carleton population, and why this looks different from the population of the United States, considering that Carleton draws its students from a national (and increasingly international) pool. Physics, for instance, is one of the extreme cases nationally, even when it comes to gender equity. Carleton has done remarkably well over the years in that roughly 25% of its graduating seniors in Physics and Astronomy are female, but it’s been stuck at that number for years, for example. And as for black or Latino/a students, the numbers are tiny. Computer Science, too, has terrible numbers in this regard. But not Mathematics. So what explains this difference?

I am from India, and have watched the international view of Indians transform in a blink of a generation from them being regarded as poor, technologically incapable, and associated with mysticism and exoticism, to being regarded as scientifically and technically enormously capable and as a scientific-technological-economic power, threatening to the West (the real issue with ‘outsourcing’ isn’t that pay-scales are lower in India, but the immense size of the scientific and technological human talent pool there). In a case of things turning full circle, various Americans now spend a summer or year interning in India in the Silicon Valley there (I remember the strange feeling of talking to an alum Michael R. as he graduated and headed off to Bangalore — it was the best job he could imagine having). And Japan (Japan!) has a case of ‘Indian educational system’ envy.

I claim that there are two lessons in this: One, the cultivation of talent in one population helps all of humanity. Two, any population is capable of doing science, if that is valued and cultivated appropriately. Yep, this isn’t a massive intellectual point, just my starting point.

Why cannot these lessons be applied to sub-populations in the United States?

That’s my motivation.

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