STEM Education and the Underrepresented Pipeline

There’s been a lot of discussion and debate about the lack of diversity in the technology workforce recently, particularly here in Silicon Valley.  In the industry, engineers and tech workers from minority communities are woefully underrepresented. This is bad for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of diversity of perspective and experience that is brought to new technologies that are needed to serve an ever more diverse society.

There are innumerable initiatives that have been launched to address this stunning shortcoming.  And yet we continue to be frustrated by the progress made to date.
I want to focus in on the so-called pipeline that should feed the system.  Simply put, there are not enough underserved youth choosing or able to go into STEM related fields out of high school.  It is not for lack of trying.  

In formal education we see great efforts such as the Oakland Promise, the Greene Scholars Program, and the state-funded Career Pathways Trust to name just a few. In after school and informal education settings we see all the wonderful work being done by Black Girls Code, Techbridge, The Hidden Genius Project, The YMCA, Northern California Girl Scouts, Code 2040, the Crucible and so many more. In addition, networks are forming to bring all these disparate initiatives together, such as the Gateways Eastbay STEM Network and the national STEM Ecosystems.

Yet while each of these initiatives shows promise and can point to some results, the problem persists…why?

We simply need to be honest about the fact that programs alone, while necessary, are not sufficient to make the systemic changes that are required.  The challenges and barriers that face our underserved youth are much deeper and complex than can be addressed by any program or programs, no matter their nominal effectiveness.  Whether it is lack of access to resources, family structures unable to give adequate support, unsafe environments or just generally communities disconnected from STEM, barriers to academic success can be multiple, and beyond the reach of many best efforts.  This is not to say we should give up trying, but rather we need to adjust our approach.  Here are two suggestions.

1. We need to recalibrate our expectations, and how we measure outcomes.  No single intervention, program, class, curriculum or teacher can be shown to be determinative of the future of any individual student’s outcomes and career.  Predictive causal chains (Program A for Student Y leads to Outcome Z) can never be shown due to the complexity of the matter at hand.  There are just too many variables in any individual student’s life, both for the individual as well as structural ones.  

And yet both schools and nonprofits are being asked to show the specific impact and metrics of their work to prove their efficacy, often linked to their funding. While it is possible to get measures on an anecdotal scale or in some cases on a macro scale, it is unrealistic to expect the impact data that is often sought. 

People are not algorithms or data sets that we believe we can understand through sufficient experimentation and evaluation, and yet we often demand just such predictability in the allocation of resources to effort to improve STEM education outcomes. An insistence on empirical data fails to recognize the emergent complexity of the issue, and may have the unintended consequence of limiting access to such programs.  While well-intentioned, this misses the mark.

2. True systemic change takes time.  Too many of the initiatives that I have described above are underfunded, while at the same time are being asked to do more.  Here I think both government and the philanthropic community can make some important, simple changes:. 
a)    Fund what clearly is working, as all of the programs I named above are.
b)    Stick with them for the long haul, making multiyear commitments to ensure they get a fair chance. 

Too many promising programs receive only startup or pilot project funding, but then are asked to rapidly become either self-sustaining, or scale to broader levels. To be frank, if these were self-sustaining and scalable enterprises they would be turning profits!  But they are not, nor by definition will they ever be…they seek to redress problems in the community that are deep and vexingly resistant to change. We need to give them the sustained support they deserve and stop trying to make them into something they are not.  The problems they are seeking to solve took a long time to emerge…the solutions will as well.

The pipeline challenge is but one in the complex array of issues surrounding the lack of work force diversity in technology…but if we don’t get about focusing on how to resolve it first, all the recruiting and culture change initiatives will be fighting a much tougher battle.

So…what do you believe?


The Einstellung Effect...what was that again?

Over the years of working in informal science and environmental science communication, I’ve taken an interest in learning more about how we decide what to believe.  In forming our beliefs we’re all wired to fall prey to a series of cognitive “traps” which can lead us to false conclusions, one of which is the Einstellung effect…I find it fascinating, but little discussed, so here is a bit more background on exactly what the effect is, and where we can observe its results.

What is the Einstellung Effect?

The Einstellung effect is the tendency to apply a familiar solution or methodology to a problem based on prior experience, even when a better solution may exist. Experience is almost always acknowledged as a helpful trait when confronting a challenge, but in the case of Einstellung, prior experience actually impairs our ability to think creatively and find the most appropriate solution.

Einstellung in Action

The effect has been observed in many contexts, and with varying degrees of potential consequences. 

Studies show that chess masters are quite susceptible to it, while grand masters are better at resisting its effects.  Stop and think about that: while “experts”, chess masters, are held in the sway of relying on familiar solutions, their betters, grand masters, are not. Guess that’s why they are grand masters.

This example proves that overcoming the Einstellung effect is no minor accomplishment: in fact, it directly correlates with getting a promotion!

Doctors, too, are well recognized for their susceptibility, and in a way that might make some sense. They are called on to quickly diagnose a host of ailments, most to which fall into a prescribed course of treatment. This is what Daniel Kanneman would describe as system 1 thinking, characterized as fast, automatic, frequent, emotional and often subconscious thought processes. Most of the time this is exactly what is called for. If we labored logically over every diagnosis or decision we would never get anywhere. But sometimes new ways of thinking are exactly what is needed, and that’s both the risk and the challenge. 

How often have we heard about the misdiagnosis leading to a disastrous outcome?

On a much larger scale, the Einstellung effect is often pointed to in military history, where successive wars are fought using previous strategies and tactics, to often-predictable results . . . you know the stories.  Revolutionary war minutemen firing from behind rocks and trees to defeat regimented rows of British soldiers.  America going down to ignominious defeat in Southeast Asia on the back of brute force WWII weapons and tactics.  Most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where fundamental failures to understand the nature of conflict resulted in strategies that led to tragic but arguably inevitable results.

Easy to point out in hindsight, but darn we seem to get caught in these traps over and again — and note it is often the “experts” that get us there (see chess above!).

The Einstellung Effect Avoided ( tremendous fashion)

In 2011 the city of Troy Michigan was faced with a fiscal crisis that threatened to close the city’s libraries.  A last minute measure was put on the ballot to raise taxes by 0.7%, but it was immediately and vigorously opposed by an organized anti-tax group. With the usually low turnout for elections such as this, it was headed for certain defeat. Routine solutions to the problem of getting voters to the ballot box (such as advertisements or door-to-door solicitation) simply weren’t going to be enough.

But shortly before the election in August, lawn signs started sprouting up around town reading “Vote to close Troy library Aug. 2nd, Book burning party Aug 5th.” The signs were put up by a group called Safeguarding American Families, which then also started a Facebook and Twitter campaign calling for the no vote and the book burning.  Book burning T-shirts and mugs were put on sale.

The media picked up on the story, first locally, then nationally and internationally.  Suddenly the citizens of Troy were paying very close attention. And even though the campaign was revealed to be a hoax before the election (perpetuated by some geniuses at the Leo Burnett Ad agency), turnout increased 342% and the measure passed easily.

The Troy library saga teaches us a valuable lesson about the Einstellung effect: by looking beyond familiar strategies to something truly outside the box, we can achieve what’s believed to be impossible.

So, what do we do to counteract the Einstellung effect on our own work?   More on that next time.




Science…well sort of...connecting the dots with measles

Boy this measles thing has really got my heart pumping again. In fact, it’s making me downright optimistic about our future.  Unlike the usual sciency news story, this one is clearly more than just a standard meme, a weeklong sensation soon to be washed over by the next big thing or faux crisis.  This one is different, and for some important reasons that have the potential to have a much broader impact...  but maybe not in the way you’d think.


To start, it has, for the first time really focused the ire of both the general public and politicians of all stripes on the ridiculousness of an anti-science position, in this case the anti-vax nonsense. For both left and right, mainstream and lamestream, the outcry has been consistent...for God’s sake immunize your kids.  And I can point to the precise locus of the focus (…see what I did there?)  Mickey Mouse…Oh hell yes, you can mess with Darwin, our climate and the fluoride in our water but DO NOT mess with the Magic Kingdom.  Riffing aside, we know that facts and data do not drive our beliefs regarding science, and that in practice we rely on a complex set of emotionally driven biases and responses to arrive at our beliefs.  This is the perfect example.  By having Disneyland at the center of the outbreak, it shifts the issue from just another science story to one that threatens one of the core symbols of our national identity.  How could anyone allow the happiest place on earth to be under attack, and just stand by and watch.  No, this requires action!  I guarantee you, if the measles outbreak had occurred in South Texas, it would have been just another one day wonder.  But by associating the symbol of Disneyland to the fear response triggered by the yucky pictures of kids with measles, we have a winner.  So step one, it has won our emotional attention, and seems to be holding it.


Step two is that it has highlighted the underlying principle behind vaccination.  The point is not so much about protecting your child as it is about protecting all of society through the so called herd immunity.  It stands on the basic principle that we all need to take small reasonable actions for the greater good; that our individual beliefs, though perhaps deeply held, are trumped by the needs of civil society.  So if that principle is accepted here, as it has been nearly universally these last few weeks, is it really that far of a leap to set aside our ideologically driven beliefs on climate change to accept the science, and take the necessary, and sometimes compromising steps to address it for the benefit of us all.  I think not, and that’s why this recent outbreak has given me hope.


But to get to the point of connecting the dots between measles and climate, there are a few more bridges to cross.  I’ve often posed the question, “What beliefs that you hold dear are you willing to change in order to get others to change theirs?”  By asking folks to examine their own beliefs that are typically closely associated with certain ideologies or world views (GMO’s, fracking, homeopathy, nuclear energy, psychic healing, EMF radiation, unicorns), I’m challenging them to confront the fact that we all hold on to certain nonsense.  That’s why I find it heartening when I see politicians willing to stand up to small factions in their own parties and support the science rather than the fear.  But what I think we also need to do for this to really kick in, is for us all to take on own shibboleths, and discard them for the barriers to greater progress that they are.  Just as we cannot justify a world that allows individuals to make belief-based personal decisions that harm the public good, as in the case of measles vaccination, so should we also not countenance one that supports belief in other baseless gobbledygook.  We need to have the same courage to call it out when we see it, as both John Boehner and Barack Obama did regarding the measles.  By doing so I think we will create more space for those with beliefs contrary to our own, to confront theirs in the same manner.


That’s why this measles outbreak gives me hope…so, what do you believe?

Science, Well sort of…fracking redux

I've been really agonizing over this one.  In fact, a draft of this piece in various forms has been on my computer for several months, as I seem unable or unwilling to finish it.  For background, it’s been about a year since I completed my series on fracking (for the truly nerdy and bored, see 6 most recent posts here) where I came to the conclusion that, on balance, the result of fracking and the increased use of natural gas would be a net positive as it relates to climate change by leading to reduced GHG emissions.  I admitted that I came to the conclusion by filtering the evidence available through my own set of biases, no matter how hard I tried to not do so. I also noted that this conclusion was of course subject to change on the basis of new evidence.  Over this time new evidence has indeed come forward, as ever more studies are completed.   Several are around the issue of methane release and so called life cycle greenhouse gas emissions (here, here and here.) Others take a more holistic look at the issue (here).  But I double dare you to read them and interpret the conclusions as anything other than providing data the can be used to support either side of the fracking debate….and of course, they all finish with “more research is needed”.  So the evidence has not swayed me.

Beyond pure data, climate activists continue to make a full throated case that fracking is bad for a variety of interrelated reasons, such as in this Mother Jones article. But their case is one muddled by ideology and is not made on the basis of the science.

So while neither the new evidence, nor the thrum of anti-fracking activism, has persuaded me to change my conclusion,  I have to admit that I have indeed changed my view. BAM, there, I said it.

What I am forced to admit  is that I made a fundamental error in my previous approach to this issue, and one that we can all fall prey to when dealing with inherently complex issues...I asked the wrong question.  I posed “Is fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?” By narrowly and carefully framing my question in this manner, I created a construct that would easily allow for a “yes” answer, but at the same time I lost sight of the bigger implications of both the question and the answer.

First I erred by relying on the underlying assumption that we actually have the time to take advantage of a so-called bridge or ramp energy source such as natural gas, and still achieve “sustainable outcomes”…translation, hold global warming to a manageable level.  Sadly, nearly all the trends in the data suggest that we simply do not have that time. (Here)

Another factor that has altered my thinking is a change in my belief that we need such a bridge fuel in the first place.  This was predicated on the assumption that renewable or zero carbon sources could not be scaled at a sufficient pace to meet real world demands.  Again, it looks like I was wrong, and the evidence comes from none other than my fatherland, Germany.  My wacky relatives got me all exercised  when they announced that they were phasing out their nuclear program in a transition to solar and wind.  I felt certain this was wrongheaded, knee jerk anti-nuclear nihilism that would only result in more reliance on coal.  Well son of a gun, wrong again.  It looks like Germany is indeed on track to transition to renewables such and wind and solar. (Here)

Finally, I think the biggest factor in my re-evaluation springs from the simple observation made by my friend Dan Miller when he says “ you can’t reduce CO2 in the atmosphere by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere”, through the use of natural gas.

So based on all of the above, I withdraw my original conclusion, but with a caveat. I don’t think it will be constructive to be “anti-fracking” any more than I think it is useful to be “anti-nuclear”. Where I think we all need to put all of our energies is to be “pro-zero carbon.”  Let’s focus on being for something rather than against something.  It tends to work out better that way.

So, what do you believe?