Guest Blog by Laura Huenneke
As the road signs declare, Flagstaff identifies itself as America’s 1st STEM Community. The proclamation grew out of the realization that we are not just a university town but also home to many research and scientific organizations (governmental, educational, and private industry). What does it mean to be a STEM community, and what vision of the future does it describe?
People often think of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as pushing students into technical and health fields. A natural reaction is to counter with cries for STEAM (incorporating arts education into the program) or for other professional training opportunities. The arts and social sciences are certainly invaluable for insights into innovative and effective community development. So why do we continue to talk about STEM City? It’s worth thinking about the goal.
Recently I was fortunate to hear Rush Holt, Jr. speak to a scientific audience. Holt is a former congressional representative from New Jersey, and is now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He recalled the impact of Sputnik and the subsequent national push for more advanced science and engineering in the 1950s and 60s. Many STEM professionals look back to this era, when major national investments were made in science research and in training undergraduate and graduate students in what are now termed STEM fields. (Note, the term “STEM” came about in the 1990s as a shorthand for discussing these fields at the National Science Foundation.)
But Holt pointed out this is also when we started thinking of science and engineering as something that the “best and brightest” should be pursuing; the rest of us ‘normal people’ might sit back and watch. He highlighted how this has led to today’s attitude that math and science are difficult subjects, that our political leaders scurry to claim “I am not a scientist,” and that our society more generally has lost our “reverence for evidence.” He linked this loss of general appreciation for scientific work and evidence-based decision-making to a wide range of current policy debates, from the benefits of vaccination to the denials of biological evolution and of climate science.
STEM City is really a vision that all of our citizens can reclaim the respect for evidence and for science as a process of inquiry and observation-based reasoning. Yes, we want all our students to have the opportunity to pursue professional careers in STEM, and we want our community to continue to host thriving science and research organizations. But ultimately the STEM community vision is even broader than those worthwhile ideas – something that enriches and empowers all citizens.
Guest Blog Post for STEM City and Special to the Arizona Daily Sun by Laura Huenneke, PhD Environmental Sciences. Laura also serves on the STEM City Executive Committee.