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Sticking with science: continuity and community

Posted by Melissa on February 27, 2010

Eric Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, was on campus a couple of weeks ago as a Headley House visitor. One of the events during his residence was a public lecture on science literacy. Jolly noted that many efforts aimed at increasing interest in science follow the “pure of heart” model, namely if the intentions of the program are good, the results will follow, but assessment shows this is not the case. Jolly discussed a report he authored about five years ago with Pat Campbell of Fairer Science and Lesley Perlman. The report found that students needed an ecosystem throughout their school years that had three elements to ensure student success in quantitative disciplines and the sciences. Namely the ecosystem had to provide engagement (building interest), capacity (gaining skills for success), and continuity (finding an ongoing series of opportunities and support to be able to continue) — the ECC triology. While a single program might not address all three elements, the ecosystem had to offer overlapping opportunities that covered all three aspects of the ECC trilogy in order to have a positive, sustaining influence on students.

The continuity element caught my attention because that’s the theme for this month’s Scientiae.  For anyone who has received a science degree, I think engagement and capacity can be taken for granted, but continuing in science is not a given. Jolly’s talk made me think about the elements that lead individuals to stick with science once they have gotten their degree.

What has been the ECC trilogy of my ecosystem– the three elements whose presence or absence has led me to stick with, or consider walking away from, a science career? In my journey since receiving my bachelor’s degree, those three elements have been enthusiasm, confidence, and community. The times I’ve thought about leaving science have been when any one of these elements was missing for an extended period of time. Some of these elements, like enthusiasm and confidence can be controlled, at least partially, by my own outlook and actions. (For one look at the relative merits of being enthusiastic versus confident, check out this discussion at the Happiness Blog.) The element that I find missing most often is the community element. Isolation, politics, and a machismo culture sometimes swamp any personal enthusiasm I have for the science I’m doing. A friend who left physics once said, “I love physics, but I couldn’t take the physicists.”

Nevertheless, there are many levels of community, and one can often find microcosms that make continuing desirable. These supportive communities offer opportunities both for professional development and connections, as well as personal development and connections. I was particularly interested by Sharvell Becton’s discussion of workplace community at the AAUW blog earlier this week. In her post, Becton quotes from the paper “Work-Life Programs and Organizational Culture: The Essence of Workplace Community” by Neal Chalofsky and Mary Gayle Griffin:

The concept of the workplace community represents the essence of work-life balance. Work-life balance is not about having equal time every day for work and personal time, as some critics have suggested. It’s about being in an environment that honors both needs and builds in consideration for meeting work and personal needs as appropriate. The western philosophical concept of balance is an either-or proposition; you are either on one side or the other. Rarely are the sides of equal value and in balance. The result of the struggle for balance is usually a win-lose situation. The eastern concept of balance is the yin-yang symbol, representing an acknowledged tension of opposing forces. It’s a both-and proposition rather than an either-or one. Both sides can “win” because day-to-day one or the other side will have greater needs. All this is to say that those organizations that are humane know that caring for employees means the employees will care for the organization. One day the situation may call for everyone pitching in on an important project, another day it may mean covering for a team member whose child is sick, and another day everyone may be going to a company picnic. In the long term, everyone wins.

One example of the difference between community support and community marginalization can be seen in how organizations handle parental leave, a topic of personal interest to me recently. Here at Carleton, the college has a clearly stated parental leave policy for faculty members that can easily be found on the web and is regularly used. Taking parental leave follows a straight forward process. On the other hand, try to figure out how NSF deals with PIs who go on maternity leave and you will have a hard time finding any policy. Talking with others leads to a grapevine of gossip that contains stories, some heart-warming and some terrifying, about how individual situations have been handled. While NSF is a huge entity, dealing with a diverse constituency, failure to have an articulated, accessible plan about parental leave for PIs, post-docs, and grad students being funded by NSF grants contributes to the sense that members of the scientific community aren’t expected to have children.

While individuals can’t control community dynamics, community recognition that scientists are people with lives outside of science makes a big difference in whether individuals choose to continue.

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3 Responses to “Sticking with science: continuity and community”

  1. […] Sticking with science: continuity and community […]

  2. Nice post! I like your personal ECCs, though I, too, find the isolation and politics stomp on both community and confidence, for me at least. And the science literacy ecosystem has me thinking about better ways to approach all the science outreach activities I do, to maybe help push those systems to include better Es and Cs.

    • Melissa said

      Rocket Scientista, I agree that politics and isolation impact confidence as well as community, although I find that often I am more effective than any external factors at torpedoing my own confidence.

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