Our STEM Problem- Regaining Interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
In the old days, we took pride in building things. We enjoyed the challenges that came from creation. We attacked those problems with passion and pride, simply because they were there to be attacked. We bent technology to our will because we honestly believed it could solve the difficulties of our time.
And somewhere along the way, we lost that pure passion.
What?s more, the technological environment of our day doesn?t support the individuals who have the potential to grow it. Lacking passion has given way to a new clique culture in which one-upping one another has replaced a shared sense of purpose.
It?s a problem. And it?s one that we desperately need to solve.
Attending college (in a Computer Science program, in particular) in the mid 2000s, there the sense that we had arrived to the game a bit too late. Gone was the tech boom of the late 90s (and its promises of signing bonuses, earth shattering wealth, and a sense of royalty). Engineering and technology were still honorable routes, but they?d lost the mystique and excitement that had defined them since the 60s; the best we could say at the time was that we were making ?responsible career decisions.?
Across my program, I slowly noticed a very prevalent homogeneity. The majority of my classmates were white males from average/middle-class backgrounds. Of these, the vast majority were brilliant, socially awkward kids who were headed for still high-paying, yet rather mundane cubicle programming jobs. They had passion, certainly, but it was passion for clean code and passing test cases; it wasn?t a passion to use their skills to change the world.
Another paradigm that I noticed as time went on was the stunning lack of women in our program. The Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering programs seemed to have a decent number of them, but other than one or two exceptions, they were completely missing from Comp Sci. The women I knew were focused on journalism and business and marketing, but they viewed Computer Science (and its associated curricula, like mathematics) as, at best, not an option and, at worst, as a frighteningly ?nerdy? disciple to be avoided.
All in all, what should have been a ?program of destiny? ? wherein bright young minds fashioned tools, applications, and other technology for the betterment of their generation ? was, in many ways, boring and uninspired. Over time, it grew worse: it began to fill with a dogma that rejected anything that challenged its status quo.
A Man?s Environment
Now, over 10 years later, these problems still exist; in many ways, despite advances in various areas, they have continued on in full force.
One problem, in particular, continually hits us in the face: the fact that women are absent in tremendous quantities from tech.
The icons of this generation ? Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple ? all have workforces who are predominantly male. The problem is further exacerbated in purely technical roles. Despite public proclamations about diversity, these giants have yet to put their money where their mouths are.
Over the past decade, many explanations arose for this disparity:
- When the PC became a common household item, men were more likely to use it than women.
- Our culture encourages women to ?be feminine? (which has come to me enjoyment of dolls more than technology).
- The stereotype of the geeky white male continues, unabated, and is contrary to many females? idea of an enjoyable pursuit.
Although these seem stereotypical, they resonate with my personal experience. In college, women viewed Comp Sci as an unattractive field filled with socially awkward people, a curriculum that failed to inspire, and an overall environment of detachment.
That particular beat marches on. Despite many advances of brilliant women into the field of technology, most tech companies don?t understand how to strike the balance of respecting women without attempting to dominate their ideas. The story of Julie Ann Horvath is evidence enough. That culture of geeky, socially-awkward men has evolved into a new breed that is more domineering than it should be.
The most frustrating part? In my experience, women represent some of the best technological talent in the world. They perceive things less myopically than many men do, and are able to bring unique perspective to critical thinking. Most of all, often times, with their excitement and passion comes a simple grace that reignites a sense of shared community in the technological workspace.
The first step to reigniting a sense of shared technological passion and destiny is to invite some of the best thinkers of our generation to an equal seat at the table.
The Cool Kids Table
Unfortunately, encouraging women into equal roles only addresses part of the problem. To understand the remainder, one only has to consider what goes on at Stack Overflow, a popular programming Q&A website.
Stack Overflow?s claim to fame is its community. For each question asked, answers are naturally voted up or down by the community (with the hope being that the best answers naturally rise to the top). In general, this mechanism works. However, it often comes with a decided sense of afflicted entitlement: the prodigies of Stack Overflow believe they are the best developers in the world and aren?t afraid to let others know it. In the worst cases, they use this influence to exact a pseudo equivalent of the cool kids table in high school: don?t bother coming here if you don?t already know enough to be accepted by us.
This arrogance takes on several forms:
- User profiles that highlight how many answers they?ve answered on Stack Overflow (demonstrating that the collection of points is the primary concern of those users)
- Legitimate questions that are closed as ?too broad?, ?too localized?, or any number of other arbitrary labels that get attached by Stack Overflow administrators
- Long, drawn-out comment threads that quickly devolved into arguments between warring members of these ?programming tribes?
All of these (and more) are build from decent principles, but in the end, they encourage a community that is closed off, high and mighty, and generally unwilling to help new entrants. And therein lies the issue: when a primary source of technical learning is completely devoid of the passion and insight that fosters true community, bright-and-brimming minds are soured to the whole thing.
Had Stack Overflow been around when I was in college, I wonder what effect it would have had on me. I wasn?t a superstar programmer, even by the time my senior year ended; what would have happened had I, desiring that sense of destiny, sought understanding from a group who is jaded, overly opinionated, and unwilling to properly support newcomers?
Michael Richter says it well:
[Stack Overflow] changed slowly but surely in the way that all ?community moderated? things change. Here is the recipe that all such ?community-driven? approaches almost, but not quite, invariably follow:
- A wide-open community based on ?merit? is built.
- The community gets a kernel of users who build up ?merit? by virtue of, basically, being obsessive twerps.
- As this kernel of ?serious? users builds up its influence, they start to modify what the standards of the community are to match their own desires.
- These standards get enforced on other members of the community who lack sufficient ?merit? (read: who have a life outside the site) to fight back.
- The tenor of the community changes to match the notions of the obsessive, but ?meritous? minority.
- Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
This happened at Wikipedia and it?s happened at StackOverflow. StackOverflow was once fun. It is no longer. StackOverflow once had a tolerance for things a little outside of the norm. It does no longer.
This reality scares me. And so, the second step becomes clear: the only way we will reignite our technological passion is to foster a community where newcomers can share that same sense.
The Way Forward
In my opinion, we need to regain what we?ve lost. In an endless race to fill app stores and create e-commerce platforms, we need to remember the passion and destiny that brought us here in the first place. We need to recapture the sense that we build great tools not because they are, themselves, great, but because there are great missions to be accomplished.
There is a lot of damage to repair on this road. Smart, valuable people have been alienated by a system that never should have been created. Regaining their trust is going to take a great deal of humility and an even larger amount of time. But it needs to happen.
I?ve become convinced that every generation has the opportunity to pursue destiny. It?s time that we, the most technologically advanced humans that have ever existed, put our knowledge and wits toward recapturing it.
We can do it.
This is a guest post by Aaron Bach. Find more of his great insights on his blog over at: http://www.bachyaproductions.com/