The most common response I receive when telling someone I am studying physics is “Wow! That’s hard. I could never do that,” or something along those lines.Although my instant response might be a little satisfaction, it also doesn’t sit well with me. My educator instincts then usually kick in and I try to add something along the lines of “Well, anyone can do it if they work hard enough.”
We all know THAT STEM major who likes to flaunt their homework load and challenging exams over those who chose different fields. I admit, I used to be that person and still have to actively try not to be a “STEM supremacist,” as I coin it. Maybe the reason my 18-year-old self chose a career in STEM was to feel intellectually superior.
The reason I am staying in STEM, and subjecting myself to six or so more years of graduate school, is not that. I still enjoy solving intellectual problems, but through my experiences at Goshen College, I also developed a love for working with students, using my creativity in investigative approaches, and challenging my understanding of how the world works both socially and physically.
STEM supremacy is a double-edged sword, discrediting other types of intelligence and further ostracizing underrepresented groups from participating in the science world. Ever since performing well in science classes in middle school, I received the “Major in STEM! We need more women in STEM!” message from teachers and other adults. I remember discussions as a high school senior about whether my classmates and I scored high enough on the ACT to have STEM readiness or not.
This messaging perpetuates the idea that your brain either can or can’t do math and science, which we now know thanks to education research is completely false.
When I was recently at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, I sat in on a roundtable where I and other undergraduate and graduate students discussed the concept that you have to be some kind of genius to excel in physics. This idea, though not a peer-reviewed truth, creates a barrier, reflected in the fact that physics is roughly 30 years behind other scientific fields in terms of gender and racial diversity.
Unsurprisingly, the field of physics education research also trails behind other education disciplines, with it only becoming a designated field in the 1970s. Of all the new physics doctorate recipients in the US in 2018 and 2019, 84% were men and 80% were white. It doesn’t take a great understanding of math to see disparities there, and why would we be surprised that such an elitist field primarily consists of the demographic most uplifted by society?
With all of this said, I still believe STEM is a challenging, important field of study. Just be careful acting superior for your choice to suffer through general chemistry or calculus, because it may be rooted in some patriarchal and white supremacist ideas. I have high hopes that through continued education research and restructuring of how we teach STEM, more people feel that they have a place at the table.