By Cecilia M. Orphan
I am not qualified to write about science. My knowledge of the subject is limited to the occasional NPR interview with a scientist and articles in the New York Times that I have consumed. I have a political science degree and despite what some of my colleagues in the discipline would want you to believe, political science is not scientific.
In the last few decades, many political scientists have striven to be viewed as bona fide scientists, detached from the populations and systems that they study and able to offer unbiased, expert opinions based on hypotheses and statistical formulas. Because of my aversion to this yearning for values-neutral roles as scholars and not activists, I am now a Ph.D. student of higher education.
I am learning about how theories can not only improve our understanding of the academy but can also transform American universities to serve as engines for democracy. So what does this have to do with civic science, a signature initiative of the American Commonwealth Partnership, and why do I have anything to say about this topic?
I constantly hear politicians, educators, media representatives, business and community leaders bemoan the decrease in college students studying the sciences. They worriedly predict what this drop off in interest will mean for our economy and competitive posture in the world. They also rightly critique and interrogate the lack of diversity in the field and challenge educators to reduce barriers and make the disciplines more attractive to a wider array of students so that we can maintain our global position as a land of experts and inventors.
For a generation that will be – for the first time in American history – worse off economically than previous generations, these appeals do not appeal.
Millennials have accepted that they will not be as financially secure as their parents. They look to other measures of achievement to interpret their own value and contributions to society. They volunteer at higher rates than previous generations and many are eager to devise solutions to the public problems facing their neighborhoods, schools and communities.
As has been demonstrated, this generation sees its own success tied up with society’s ability to alleviate inequality and provide opportunities for all citizens to participate in creating their own shared futures. Millennials are also more global in their thinking and believe that the U.S. should form mutually beneficial partnerships with other countries and not compete against them. For these reasons, making the case for studying science based on global competitiveness and the health of the economy does not inspire this generation to put down Murakami and pick up a biology textbook.
While I don’t presume to be an oracle for my generation and I am well aware that there are many outliers to the generalizations I have made above, after having spent the last 10 years of my life working with college students I believe that my description on the whole is true. So why does science matter and why should it matter? And how can we inspire Millennials to pursue degrees in the STEM fields?
College students today work tirelessly to afford their education. Many hold multiple jobs and help support families while putting themselves through school. This is a group of young people that is more diverse economically, socially, culturally and ethnically than any other cohort of college students in American history.
Many, like me, will be the first member of their family to enroll in higher education. And while many will enter the academy, fewer will leave having achieved that precious and invaluable accomplishment: a college degree. These students want to believe that in the face of immense difficulty, decreasing financial aid and growing societal skepticism over the role and purpose of their American higher education that they are working not only to better themselves, but to better their families, communities and the world. For these young people, science becomes relevant when it is tied to real-world problems and civic work.
I am reminded of the Stewardship of Public Lands initiative that I worked with while I was national manager of the American Democracy Project. To me, this initiative demonstrates the power and potential of civic science. It also helps us understand a different kind of political science that asks policy makers and community leaders to partner with scientists and neighborhoods to create solutions that will address controversies over the use and management of public lands. It is this type of civic science that asks us to study the world with a view to democracy and understand the connections between the scientific and political dimensions of our realities. And I believe that it is this real-world, applied view of science that would inspire my generation to pursue higher learning in scientific realms.
I was struck by a story told by one of the Millennial speakers at Tuesday’s White House event. Nikki Cooley, a member of the Navaho tribe, became passionate about science when she understood how it impacted her culture. Nikki saw first-hand how climate scientists and tribe leaders worked together to provide her family and community with electricity, and then discovered a passion for learning more about a subject she previously had little interest in. She saw how science could positively shape her community’s future. Science became civic, and Nikki became inspired.
If we want to lead the world as innovators, scientists, entrepreneurs, adventurers and, most importantly, democratic citizens, we must call on higher education to awaken the civic impulses of scientific studies. I firmly believe that this awakening will lead to more majors in genetics, mathematics, engineering and other vital fields. Of greater significance, these college graduates will be filled with a public spirit and will work to apply their scientific and civic expertise to improve American democracy.
Cecilia Orphan is a Ph.D. Student in the Higher Education Division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to coming to Penn, Ms. Orphan directed the American Democracy Project, an initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities focused on higher education’s role in preparing informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. Ms. Orphan serves on the Steering Committee for the American Commonwealth Partnership and on the Board of The Democracy Imperative. She is an Imagining America Publicly Active Graduate Education Fellow and a New England Research Center for Higher Education Next Generation Engagement Fellow.