November 04, 2019

No STEM without MESH

author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

I am fond of saying that I don’t necessarily want my students to become sociologists, but that I do believe that sociology will make them better at whatever it is that they will end up becoming. (Don’t get me wrong: I love it if you want to be a sociologist!)

When I see campus and nation-wide emphasis on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) curriculum, I am somewhat disappointed that there is not a wider definition of Science. Occasionally someone will make the argument for arts training to add an A in there: STEAM.

First, sociology is a science. I like to joke that it’s right there in the “-ology” at the end of it. And our national organization, the American Sociological Association (ASA), published a document to develop standards for sociology-based high school curriculum and makes the case that sociology “is a STEM field.”

But second, I’m sure that most of us would agree that science in the meaning that it is intended when politicians and policymakers use the term STEM, needs a strong sociological foundation in order to maintain strong ethics, clear disciplinary standards, and a clear broader societal impact.

It was a relief, then, for me to read writer Tim Wise’s recent article, “Forget STEM, we need MESH.” He feels that there is a great need for these four other fields for a better society: Media Literacy, Ethics, Sociology, and History. Wise writes, “Without a sociological imagination, it’s hard to fully understand issues of inequality, wealth, poverty, or group conflict and how those shape our world.” Perhaps it is because race, sexuality, gender, and class are central to other fields it is not mentioned here, however, they comprise key features of our field and, therefore, are key contributions to the idea of a MESH curriculum.

Wise says that STEM is “necessary but not insufficient.” He notes that STEM can solve major issues, and will save us from ecological disaster. But how it does that matters, and needs to be in conversation with MESH disciplines.

How can societal ills like issues of racism, sexism, and inequality be solved without a firm understanding of race, sex and gender, and inequality? For example, I am working with a graduate student on a research project about food access and we are somewhat amazed at how the solutions are some new technology that doesn’t take into account social factors. (Of possible interest: This article by Collins Odote offers a similar argument about Kenyan politics two days prior to Wise’s piece, quoting an author who told him “you cannot innovate your way out of bad governance.”)

And why is it, then, that the MCAT (the Medical College Admission Test used to assess the critical thinking, problem solving and knowledge of science that is necessary to succeed in medical school) has been including questions on sociology since 2015? (See the wonderful article, “‘It’s on the MCAT for a Reason:’ Premedical Students and the Perceived Utility of Sociology”) It is because the Association of American Medical Colleges—those who administer the MCAT—has determined that medical knowledge is necessary but insufficient in order to be a medical practitioner. They believe you need social science knowledge as well.

Much of the policy around STEM is in diversifying the labor force, and making those fields more hospitable to women and underrepresented groups. But those who are interested in STEM should wonder why it is that sociology programs are the ones that have such diverse student populations.

I am guessing that we here at UMass Amherst are not altogether unlike other sociology programs in our demographics: As compared with other departments in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, we have the largest percentages of ALANA (Asian-American, Latino, African-American & Native American), underrepresented minorities, first generation students, and student athletes in our program. Our department also has the second largest percentage of women and transfer students.

And so, why do we have so many of these populations in sociology? One of the reasons might very well be that STEM fields are toxic environments for women and underrepresented groups. STEM and university programs have worked hard to improve the educational environment for those groups to enter into those fields.

For example: Why is it that, according to the National Academy of Sciences, 43% of women and 23% of men walk away from full-time STEM jobs after they have their first child? Sociologists Erin Cech and Mary Blair-Loy have the answers: The worst parental leave policies in the industrialized world means increased replacement/turnover costs and a loss of talent.

These problems are known. The solutions might be in MESH. The National Science Foundation has deployed significant resources into improving diversity in the science and engineering workforces with what’s called the ADVANCE program.

But these push factors are only one part of the story. The other is that MESH disciplines have many pull factors as well. MESH fields are attractive places for those students because the students are right to think that these are fields that can improve our society, answer some of the questions they are concerned with, and give them the tools to change the world.

This U.S. News and World Report article quotes a Harvard student who says the following: "My decision to major in sociology was influenced by a lot of things, but very specifically by my race […] As a black female, I've seen a lot of marginalization." She saw sociology as a “natural fit.” I know many of my students feel similarly.

At the same time, women and underrepresented groups should know that while they gravitate toward MESH fields, they are also moving to fields that have worse economic outcomes. According to a study from Georgetown University, black college students gravitate to lower-paying fields, like social work.

I would love to see equal commitment to STEM and MESH on our college campuses. I would love to see STEM and MESH in high schools. And, perhaps more importantly, I would love to see them in conversation with each other.

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