STEM x ER&M

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

ER&M’s importance reaches far beyond “Ethnic Studies” or even the humanities. The program and discipline provide us with ways of thinking that are directly applicable to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Many students at Yale feel strongly about the role of Ethnic Studies within STEM — a few of them sat down for a roundtable discussion about the importance of ER&M within their fields of study.

By Stephen Early, BK ’20, Stephanie Blas-Lizarazo, MC ’20, Ellie Shang, SM ’20, Kenia Hale, SM ’21, and Lane To, MY ’19.

Image from Yale Scientific Magazine

Stephen Early: Firstly, what were some perceptions or associations you had with ER&M at Yale and all of the recent news involving Ethnic Studies at Yale?

SE: You come across people who have the mindset that ER&M is not hard and they only value quantitative and “hard” majors. I can think of a few people in Mechanical Engineering (MechE) specifically who I’ve had conversations with or tried to explain everything that’s been happening to, and they think Yale should put its money into STEM because “we actually create things” and ER&M just “looks at things.” There are a lot of people who have been groomed with the mindset that STEM is the most valuable thing and that creating a solution is more important than understanding all the contexts behind it.

Lane To: I feel like there’s this perception that studying ER&M is easy for People of Color (POC). Like, “Oh you’re taking an Asian American history class, that must be so easy.” But it’s a very emotionally draining thing to be studying all these histories of the oppression of your own people. And there’s definitely a perception that Ethnic Studies is something that comes naturally to POC or is something that’s very easy for them to do, so it’s devalued because it’s not seen as a real academic discipline.

Kenia Hale: [When I came to Yale] I was so excited to finally learn. Because I had taken frickin’ AP World [History], but that doesn’t teach you the stuff that ER&M teaches. And so when I came here — to answer your question — I thought ER&M was so established! I took Intro to ER&M and my initial perception was “Oh my god, I’m finally learning the stuff that I have been wanting to learn.”

SE: Yeah that’s true [for me] too. I didn’t realize until very recently how unstable ER&M was in the eyes of the administration.

Ellie Shang: I think it’s something that the administration likes to talk up or advertise, without actually backing it up in terms of real support or funding. But Yale will still take [credit for] any work that ER&M is doing as its own.

SE: For people who have taken a course or just been around the ER&M department, what were your greatest takeaways as a STEM major?

SE: For example, I took Intro to Latinx Studies and one of my biggest takeaways was the relationship of the faculty to the students. It’s way more caring than anything I had seen in my STEM classes. I think that’s also something that should be considered when we’re talking about the tenure process and the amount of work [the faculty] are putting in — those things aren’t necessarily being put on the record for their evaluations. And [as for] subject matter, I’ve used it in how I think about solutions in interrelated systems, and it’s made me more intelligent in how I look at problems because I’ve learned to ask questions of, or feel sus about, technocratic solutions that people bring to the table without necessarily knowing the people who they’re affecting or anything about the people.

KH: Absolutely. So I’m currently in a class called Race, Gender and Surveillance. I originally came into Yale as a CS major so that was very much applicable. I ended up switching out of CS because I found there to be this culture of, “Oh let’s just go get these internships with these really big corporations without worrying about what they’re actually doing.” I saw this article about Amazon making facial recognition software for ICE…

LT: Amazon was also trying to take over Queens…so…

KH: Exactly, Amazon is awful right? But I have so many friends who were so gung-ho about going into all of these corporations without thinking about anything like that. So that’s why I switched to Computing and the Arts just to get a different focus… I tried to get Race, Gender, and Surveillance to count [towards my major] because this should count as a CS class; you’re learning about how Computer Science interacts with people as opposed to learning algorithms, but they said no. I think ER&M adds something that so many of these STEM majors just don’t have.

SE: In your specific fields, how do you see Ethnic Studies being important?

ES: I think a lot of STEM students are looking to create things and build things and look for solutions to problems, but how are you going to design an effective solution to a problem that you don’t have a full understanding of? How are you even going to know what to address if you don’t have that historical or cultural understanding of how things are affecting people and how your ideas are being influenced by other factors?

SE: I think mainly we have to ask a lot more questions. After the classes that I have taken, I’ve thought a lot more about designing solutions with socio-cultural relationships in mind. Designing solutions with that in mind takes a lot more time to be effective. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve gained by slowly immersing myself in ER&M.

Stephanie Blas-Lizarazo: My ultimate pipe dream career goal is to create prosthetics that are mass producible. My parents are from Nicaragua and Venezuela originally, and both of those countries are currently in big socioeconomic political crises. I feel like those [two communities] have been and probably will continue to be overlooked in terms of healthcare, in terms of infrastructure, and things like that. Having that understanding of [the socioeconomic context] you could explore how technology could play a role in solving those types of problems. Again, the reason why I personally wanted to do ER&M is to have a better understanding of the different cultural, social, political dynamics that come to play for problems of infrastructure and technology.

KH: I took this really cool class called Sickness and Health in African American History last semester, and I think it did a good job of challenging the notion that anything can be strictly objective. Normally you hear “STEM” and you think that’s just facts and figures. But the medical history of African American people in the U.S., for example, involved so much forced experimentation; enslaved people were often used for medical experiments. Who has access to the technology that we create, and who is that technology affecting? We don’t know. I have friends who are MechE who are going to work at Shell, and I’m like… Shell? The earth is burning, what are you doing? I don’t think anything [i.e. any science you do] can be objective.

LT: One of the ER&M classes I took was Intro to Third World Studies, and that class really taught me that objectivity is fake. Everyone takes science as fact, but one of the lessons we covered in class was the racist history of science: how doctors experimented on Black people without their consent or knowledge, how environmental conservation and forestry originated as a settler-colonial technique to take over lands from Indigenous people, stuff like that. We all know about scientific racism and phrenology. Science has been used in a lot of ways in the past to justify racism and inequality, and the reality of that has taught me that science can’t always be taken as fact. You can’t trust science any more than you can trust any other academic field. A lot of what we think is objective fact is shaped by existing prejudices. Without taking an ER&M class, I would’ve never known so much about that side of science. Now when I do science, I think more about how to avoid falling into that pattern of scientists exploiting people or ignoring the needs of marginalized groups. For the sake of technology and progress, people will often overlook the importance of culture and tradition, and steamroll over Indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. I try to be extra conscious of that in the science that I’m studying; if I had never taken an ER&M class I just wouldn’t really have that perspective and wouldn’t be actively thinking about things like that. My senior project is about traditional incense in East and Southeast Asia and how to evaluate and mitigate its effects as an indoor air pollutant. I’m focusing on thinking more about how to make science work with tradition and different [non-Western] cultures. That’s not necessarily a perspective that most people who study science have, and I wouldn’t have thought of all that if I hadn’t been taking ER&M classes.


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