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STEM Education and The ‘n’ Cultures

Education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has never been able to avoid its entanglement with culture. A well known illustration of this entanglement is the “Two Cultures,” suggested by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow in 1959. Snow claimed the intellectual life of the Western society was “being split into two polar groups;” namely, “literary intellectuals at one pole,” and “scientists” at the other. The tug of war between the two cultures, imaginary or realistic, captured the attention of scientists, humanities scholars, as well as the public ever since. A recent manifestation of the two cultures, for example, can be found in the rhetoric which supports STEM education yet bashes the humanities. In university campuses, the entrenchment of the two cultures plagues some educators’ efforts to dissolve the boundary between the liberal arts and the education of young professionals.

Education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has never been able to avoid its entanglement with culture. A well known illustration of this entanglement is the “Two Cultures,” suggested by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow in 1959. Snow claimed the intellectual life of the Western society was “being split into two polar groups;” namely, “literary intellectuals at one pole,” and “scientists” at the other. The tug of war between the two cultures, imaginary or realistic, captured the attention of scientists, humanities scholars, as well as the public ever since. A recent manifestation of the two cultures, for example, can be found in the rhetoric which supports STEM education yet bashes the humanities. In university campuses, the entrenchment of the two cultures plagues some educators’ efforts to dissolve the boundary between the liberal arts and the education of young professionals.

The tension between the humanities and the sciences, however, is not the only major cultural challenge confronting STEM education in the U.S. today. An ever-increasing challenge is brought about by what I would call “the n Cultures”: the influx of students from China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Mexico…to science and engineering schools in the U.S. Perhaps the internationalization of STEM education in the U.S. is more salient at the graduate level: a recent NSF survey reports the number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents enrolled in science and engineering graduate programs in 2012 was 385,343, whereas the number for students on temporary visas was 176,085. This means when you walk into a science or engineering lab, a research group meeting, or a technoscientific conference, one in three people you meet might not be an American.

Monument to Multiculturalism by Francesco Perilli

Monument to Multiculturalism by Francesco Perilli

The numerous international students bring to STEM graduate programs, besides their talents, different cultural assumptions, social norms, and codes of behavior. The n Cultures, while not necessarily reshaping the challenge of diversifying STEM education, do make the challenge broader and all the more important: How should STEM educators create and lead multicultural learning and research communities? How can science and engineering students learn to understand, respect, and work together with colleagues from different cultures?

I have heard some scientists and engineers expressing optimism in meeting the challenge of the n Cultures. “We share the same numbers and equations,” they say. It seems to them working with a colleague who comes from the other half of the planet would be easier than talking with someone from a different college on the same campus — another indication of the gap between the Two Cultures. However, unlike the sometimes blatant confrontation between the Two Cultures, the challenges engendered by the n Cultures might be amorphous or quiet. For example, in my graduate program, a alcohol fueled party is a very popular format of social gathering. True. A little alcohol usually works well in lubricating the conversation. However, a colleague of mine who came from South Asia tends to avoid occasions of this kind. Her religion prohibits alcohol consumption. Agreeing on the numbers and equations may be easier than agreeing on the meanings of learning and research in science and engineering, and the latter is the real challenge brought about by the n Cultures.

 

Reference

Snow, C. P. 2013. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Martino Fine Books.