STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and Society: An Interview

Brenan Daniels | Labor Issues | Interview | December 21st, 2017

Today we interview two members of the Socialist Party USA. Stephanie C. is a biochemist working in the university and Eric D. is a quality manager, though by trade is a civil engineer. In the interview we discuss STEM as it relates to them personally, through the lens of capitalism, and we end with asking what advice they would give to someone looking to go into the STEM field.

What got you into the STEM field? What part of STEM do you engage in?

Stephanie C.: As long as I can remember, I had an interest and knack for science. My father was a microbiologist for the FDA, and he used to take me to work. I always knew I wanted to work in a lab. My main interest was chemistry, but the biological sciences were where I had the most knowledge and skill. I got my degree in biochemistry; I currently work making proteins that are used for cancer research at a large public research university.

Eric D.: I have always had a love for math and science. As a child, I wanted to be a scientist of some kind. But because things came easily to me in school, I got really bored and distracted. It wasn't until I got married, years after high school, that I started taking classes at my local community college.

My initial plan was to get an associate's degree and then transfer to a four-year school for a degree in chemical engineering. But during the course of taking classes at the community college, I grew more interested in civil engineering and I ultimately ended up going down the path of a degree in Civil Engineering Technologies.

I ended up getting a job with a local mechanical contractor doing CAD drawings for them on second shift and moved my way up through that department. Now, I run the company's quality management system. It's my job to establish processes to ensure that the products that we deliver meet all applicable requirements.

Why do you think that there seems to be a battle between liberal arts and the STEM fields, with people denigrating the former?

Stephanie C.: I cannot say why it is STEM that is valued over the liberal arts. Perhaps the roles would be shifted if there were more STEM graduates than liberal arts graduates, but valuing one over the other when both are useful in different ways doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The working poor have always been shamed and blamed for the failings of capitalism, this is not a new thing, though the rhetoric changes to fit the times. Lack of education can no longer be used as an excuse for why so many hard working people live in poverty, as so many of those in poverty have an education now. So the narrative shifts: It must be that they don't have the right kind of education. Or they didn't get enough education. Or the education system itself is broken. It is all about turning working people against each other: rather than questioning the system that continues to fail them.

Eric D.: Honestly, I have no doubt that it comes down to capitalism. Our country goes out of its way to cater to businesses and is set up in a way to ensure maximum profits. As a result, our education system gets manipulated by legislators in order to push whatever agenda they think will lead to a profitable outcome, with no regard for the long-term effects of such action on the wider society.

Liberal arts feed the human spirit. We can construct highways that runs through mountains and over rivers, probe into the vastness of space, open up a chest and see a beating heart without killing someone, and develop a way to instantly communicate with people anywhere in the world - all because of STEM fields. The things that we have managed to accomplish on account of STEM fields are amazing. But to truly appreciate the depth of humanity, enjoy the beauty of the world around us, and enrich our lives beyond what technological marvels can accomplish, we need the arts and humanities. But there is more money in developing technology than there is in poetry. A ballet company will never be as profitable as a medical technology corporation. Of course capitalists want to drive investment towards STEM fields and away from the Liberal Arts.

And let's not forget one very important thing. STEM fields develop a system for thinking about issues and developing solutions. But they really don't drive someone to think critically about the world around them in a way which would challenge the status quo. The Liberal Arts helps make someone a better critical thinker about social issues. It's much easier to govern a people who don't ask hard questions about why things are the way they are than it is to have a society full of deep thinkers who challenge those in office. That's not to say that people in STEM fields aren't engaged in the political issues of the world. Only that a person who has studied history, philosophy, and other things of this nature tend to bring an entirely different perspective to things than people who have spent their entire lives approaching problems like engineers.

What would your response be when people act as if a STEM field is a ticket to fast money? Why is it that this idea persists even though there are people with such degrees who can't find jobs?

Stephanie C.: I do hear this a lot, and it bothers me. It is as if we're getting to the point where education is nothing more than job training, and the concept of pursuing an education for its own sake is considered frivolous or old-fashioned. While it is possible to make money in STEM, it is by no means guaranteed, and there are other ways to make money that don't involve taking on a lifetime of student loan debt. Also, it is difficult to succeed in any field that requires long hours covering subject matter that seems boring to most people. It can be done, but at the end of the day money isn't the greatest motivator. Personally, I'd rather live in a world where doctors and scientists are motivated by their love of the field and desire to help people than money. I think this idea persists for the reasons I mentioned in the second question. The myth that the poor are poor because they chose the wrong profession, an argument that falls apart as soon as you realize that ultimately, someone has to do the low-paid professions, no matter what they happen to be at that point in time.

Eric D.: Personally, I'd tell anyone not to pursue a career just because of the money. We all know people who are absolutely miserable with what they do for a living but who make a decent living. Who cares how big my TV is if I spend 40% of my day hating what I do?

That said, if you think that you have found a ticket to fast money which is being pushed by the government, you have to keep in mind that millions of other people will be thinking the same thing. Politicians and business leaders are perfectly happy to herd millions of people towards STEM fields in order to maximize profits - and if some slip through the cracks, that's a price they're willing to pay.

Talk about some of the internal problems in the STEM field that people may not know of. We all know of the racial/gender problems?

Stephanie C.: I cannot speak from personal experience when it comes to racism in STEM, as I am white, but it is a very real problem that deserves it's own discussion. I have seen women make in roads into STEM, especially in the life sciences, but I have not seen the same progress in racial equity. Like all fields, STEM has a gender wage gap. It may be smaller than other fields, but it remains, especially in the most highly paid fields. For example, one study showed that having a male name on the top of a resume meant $4,000 more in compensation than the same resume with a female name.

Many studies have shown bias against women : in addition to being paid less, they are less likely to be hired, less likely to be promoted, and are viewed as less competent than men doing the same work. Women's work is devalued simply by the nature of women's doing it, and there are many examples showing pay drops when women take over a field and rises when men take over, It isn't just women naturally picking lower paying jobs, women are simply valued less, despite working more. And although some effort has been made to counteract gender discrimination in STEM, it is still widely believed to be a myth, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Eric D.: Well, I can't speak for all STEM fields and I'm sure that they vary in certain areas. But, in my experience, the engineering field tends to be overwhelmingly men who are very conservative. It's not at all uncommon to catch part of a conversation in which people being racist, sexist, or homophobic.

Additionally, a career in a STEM field can be very demoralizing. There is a lot of stress, tight deadlines, and a sense that you can be replaced at any moment because there are million people who are ready to step into your place. It's like the giant wheel of our economy will crush anyone who falls behind.

In what ways does pushing STEM in K-12 aid in the further decline of the power of labor and the aid in the empowerment of the corporate state?

Stephanie C.: Corporations have been pushing kids into STEM for some time now. Whether it is because it is good PR, for tax write offs and free advertising, or because they are actively trying to drive down wages by flooding the market I cannot say, but I sincerely doubt their sole motivation is helping kids.

Eric D.: The entire push towards STEM is intended to benefit the corporate state. They are creating this sense that kids need to lock in what they want to do at a young age and push towards being the best that they can be in order to be successful. My kindergartener comes home with math homework every night. While I think it's good to be competent in math regardless of a person's career choice, I don't at all think that it is more important to do math homework than it is to play in the dirt and explore. This worries me because I can already see how the drive towards STEM is taking place for him in school. The pressure only increases as kids advance in their education.

My wife teaches 11th grade Language Arts and Cultural Literacy. She does a remarkable job helping motivate kids to think outside of STEM, better understand the world in which they live, and challenge the status quo. But things have changed. There is less of an emphasis placed on her courses and far more pressure on the students and teachers where STEM fields are involved.

I've heard numerous teachers talking about life after high school and the importance of jobs in the STEM field. I hate it. I wish that students were taught the material which would best develop them as humans instead of being taught the material which would make them most useful to businesses. Not only does this have a detrimental impact on students due to them placing less importance on obtaining a well-rounded education, but it also skews their worldview and places an elevated importance on making money above other things.

A person whose main motivation is the amount of money they can make will give no thought to the forms of oppression being faced by others. In short, it reinforces the problems that already exist in our society and creates a cycle by which those oppressions continue to get worse. But this suits legislators and businesses very well. A person who is looking out for themselves and the amount of money that they can make will not be organizing labor unions or engaging in behavior which might in any way risk the stability that they cling to.

By making people focus on their wages above all else, capitalists have taken another step in neutralizing any efforts made to regain power for the working class.

What would you say to a person thinking of majoring in the STEM field?

Stephanie C.: I would ask them why want to go into STEM, and what they expect from their degree. If they say that they want easy money but have no interest or skill in STEM, I would try to encourage them to check out other options as well before committing to a path. If they are legitimately interested in STEM I would do what I could to help them discover what would be a good fit for them. I'd definitely recommend taking all the credits they could at a community colleges to transfer to another school, as this can save a lot of money, and not to take out unsubsidized or private loans if possible.

Eric D.: If it's where your heart really is, go for it. But if you aren't sure or if you're just doing it because it's what others expect you to do or you think it will provide a good source of income, don't do it. The world needs more poets, artists, dancers, philosophers, etc.

I'm concerned that with the drive towards STEM, we are sacrificing part of our humanity at the altar of "progress."