Putting some STE(A)M into STEM: Collaborations and Conversations about Socially Engaged History of Science

By Dawn M. Digrius, Senior Project Manager, STEM Collaboratives, Office of the Chancellor, The California State University

Recently, I was invited to take on two new positions. The first was a transcontinental move from New Jersey to California, to direct the recently funded STEM Collaboratives Project for the California State University (CSU), courtesy of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. The second was to oversee the history side of a new initiative within the History of Science Society, the Joint Caucus for Socially Engaged Philosophers and Historians of Science (JCSEPHS). These new adventures were both the result of several years of research, promotion, and support of socially engaged activities. “What,” you may ask, “are socially engaged activities, and how do historians of science DO these sorts of things?” I hope that in the 2000 words that HSS Executive Director Jay Malone has allowed me to have, I can explain what I have done and inspire you to think about social engagement in the history of science.

But first, I need to provide a bit of background information. For those of you who are not familiar with my research agenda, over the past four years and until joining CSU, I was an Assistant Professor of History/History of Science at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. While there, I oversaw an international research project, Sin el agua no hay vida, which focused on history, archaeology, water resources management, and sustainable development in Latin America. Every year, I took a team of undergraduate and graduate students to Ecuador, to see first-hand global problems that have an impact on humans and nature. Even though they all were majoring in different subject areas, they had to work together as a team to provide a plan for implementation that would serve to contribute in some way to sustainable development: alleviate poverty, increase quality of life, or bring economic vitality back to a small community. They also had to learn how to deal with various stakeholders.

It was probably my own background that informed my research. I began my academic career as an archaeologist, working in Latin America on a project known as the Yalahau Regional Human Ecology Project (YRHEP). Overseen by Dr. Scott Fedick, University of California at Riverside, the YRHEP centered on human/environment interaction in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. As a paleoethnobotanist on that project (someone who works with the remains of plants recovered from the archaeological record), I not only examined plant remains, I also reconstructed ancient vegetational systems and tried to understand better the intentional domestication of plants for consumption and economic uses. Our team utilized individuals from a wide range of disciplines that contributed to our investigations of the past. Built into my academic experiences were both international study and trans-disciplinary teams.

Once at Stevens, I realized that there were great opportunities to work with colleagues in the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science. These folks, engineers mostly, knew about fluid mechanics and the structural integrity of concrete better than I, so our combined efforts afforded our students a unique opportunity to obtain a wide perspective on their research. I was asked to join the “new” multidisciplinary Senior Design Pilot (now no longer a pilot) and advised engineering and science students along with my colleagues in that field. Together, we supported the development of a revised water system for a rural village in Ecuador. Thus, my experiences as a junior faculty member reflected my graduate school and undergraduate fieldwork: they were international and included a diverse group of practitioners.

From 2010, and until I left Stevens in 2014, I made sure that both in and out of the classroom I stressed to my students the pressing need for practitioners of scientific and technological research, but also history, STS, and social science researchers to have a global vision. The reason: I believe that we should be training the next generation of STEM graduates to tackle the challenges that we face, such as climate change, water scarcity, cybersecurity, and the like. I did not discriminate either; I made sure to speak about my research and my commitment to educating a globally-minded citizenry to all of my students. Over those four years, my research teams included those specializing in civil engineering, public health, history, psychology, business, and environmental science. These students worked diligently to innovate in their areas of expertise in order to contribute to raising the quality of life for people living in rural, poverty stricken areas of Latin America.

Again, maybe it is due to my prior training in Anthropology, but my research has always had an applied dimension. Sustainable development, and its underpinnings, requires all stakeholders to participate in its creation, implementation, and management to be successful. The further along I went in my research and outreach to students, the more clear it became that one’s scholarship, if socially engaged, can do more than just get you tenure. It can make a difference. I see the role of the JCSEPHS as one that brings an applied focus to the classroom, but also contributes to the world in meaningful ways.

Now that my career has shifted focus, and I am no longer in the classroom, I see a new role for my applied vision of the history of science. STEM has long been plagued by a lack of diversity. In fact, many under-represented minorities (URMs) may begin their college careers as STEM majors, but do not persist to graduation in STEM, or they might not graduate at all (Olson, Steve, and Donna Gerardi Riordan. “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Report to the President.” Executive Office of the President, 2012). By engaging all students, but particularly URMs, I believe that we can produce more STEM graduates. But, I also believe that by introducing students to the foundational aspects of the JCSEPHS, and to the idea that they can contribute to a better world no matter what discipline they study, we create an atmosphere whereby STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) becomes the standard acronym.

It may sound “preachy,” but I do believe it will happen. I have seen the evolution of my students from self-centered, globally-anemic, and sheltered young people to globally-minded, socially-conscious individuals who see their education as a way to tackle global problems in intelligent and innovative ways. Dragging 10 students to Latin America to live in a small, poor, rural village with no running water or television for several weeks may seem crazy to some, but it afforded them opportunities to think deeply about life and how their skills can contribute to an increased quality of life for others. Engineers, in particular (and I am not picking on them) tend to see the world and their work as a project and a budget. Getting them to think more critically ABOUT engineering, and HOW their work impacts ALL stakeholders (not just the folks paying for the project) was something that developed through their experiences with my project. They grew as people. They saw the human side of engineering and scientific research. They had to talk to other students outside their discipline and collaborate.

I am grateful for the time I have had inside and outside the classroom with my students. I have learned so much from them and cherish the experiences I have shared with them. I am also grateful that my work has impacted the lives of so many people, inside and outside of academia, and has fostered an environment of collaborative learning that engages individuals to see the world in new ways. While no longer standing in a classroom every day, I feel that the reach of my new position is larger than anticipated. If you are interested, visit me in El Salvador this summer, where I will continue my research on sustainable development and inspire students to apply their classroom experiences to real-world situations.

I am excited to see where this journey will take me and am thankful that I was tagged to support the JCSEPHS from the history side of things. Join me in the conversation on social engagement and include such themes in your classrooms and in your scholarship.