August 17, 2018 | ° F

Science, diversity in learning at Rutgers

Under the Microscope

Now that I have spent two years here at Rutgers, I can say with confidence that one of the most eye-opening things for me in college has been witnessing the wide range of socioeconomic diversity. I come from an upper-middle class, 99 percent white, suburban town in Massachusetts. Growing up, I pitied myself for having to stay with my “crappy” iPhone 3, while all my friends had fancy iPhone 5s and grumbled when my parents handed me a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop from the 1990s to use as my own personal computer in high school. Despite belonging to that 1 percent minority population myself (my family is Indian) — all my friends were Caucasian — my family was pretty “Americanized,” and I did not feel out of place in any way. As you can imagine, coming to Rutgers, one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, was a huge culture shock.

Perhaps the biggest eye-opening moment for me in college was volunteering at Monster Mash, a Halloween event hosted by Rutgers organizations on Cook campus that allows local New Brunswick children to “trick-or-treat” and complete fun activities in a safe environment. At the time, I was volunteering with Designer Genes, a biotechnology club, helping New Brunswick children create “candy molecules” out of marshmallows and toothpicks. During the event, a Hispanic mother came up to me during the event and asked me in broken English to explain what a molecule was so she could explain the concept to her daughter.

It wasn’t just her question that caught me by surprise. As a child, I always took it for granted that I lived in a neighborhood that was perfectly safe to trick-or-treat in on Halloween. And I definitely took it for granted that everyone knew, at least to the most basic extent, what a molecule was. It was at that moment that I realized how privileged I truly was. Growing up, not only did I not have to be concerned about conducting innocent childhood traditions in a dangerous environment, but I also had parents who spoke English fluently, had professional degrees and could still help me during senior year with my calculus homework. The more I thought about this incident, the more it struck me because I realized that immersing oneself in diversity is not just lip service — it truly matters. To understand what that mother was asking, we need to put ourselves in her shoes to figure out a basic framework to anticipate these questions.

There has been a lot of handwringing on a national scale about minorities and STEM education, but one needs to realize that an interest in science is much more than simply making it welcoming or fun. As the molecule example illustrates, any child can use a toothpick model to create a molecule, but when he goes home to an environment that does not nurture that interest further, will that mission to have taught the child a scientific concept have succeeded? The question here that we have to address is about access and opportunity — for that young Hispanic mother to be allowed a forum to answer her questions in the first place.

Furthermore, from the evidence that I have seen, the educated people who debate about the proper techniques to use in teaching STEM might show their own biases — possibly because of their own limited perspective about what difficulties the other half faces. For instance, I could not wrap my head around one young mother’s issue because up until that point, my limited worldview could not even conceive of such a situation ever occurring.

What then can we do, as students at Rutgers, to encourage the learning of science? A ready start is right at hand: even if it might be outside of your comfort zone, reach out to someone who is different from you, perhaps in race or socioeconomic status. Make full use of Rutgers’ vaunted diversity to develop empathy, to hear different points of view. I will admit I am as guilty as many Rutgers students of hanging out with people like me, but as a biotechnology student who wants to pursue law, I am working hard to change that.

If we are committed to truly listening and understanding a multitude of voices (and it would be a shame not to given what we have on our own campus), we can begin to form a platform based on understanding — a sound scaffolding on which we can then form the questions that need to be asked about science and diversity in the 21st century.

Vandana Apte is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in biotechnology with a minor in women's gender studies. Her column, “Under the Microscope,” runs monthly on Thursdays.

Vandana Apte

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