November/December 2020Vol. XXXIII No. 2

Does MIT Support DEI Education in STEM?

Jared D. Berezin

We’re inspired to overcome our shortcomings as long as we’re aware of them. When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at MIT, our longstanding shortcomings have gained newfound attention over the past six months. Students, staff, faculty, and administrators have hosted meaningful events, re-introduced previously ignored recommendations, put forth new demands, and the Institute has announced the beginnings of a DEI strategic plan.

Yet even in this moment of heightened Institute consciousness, a central question remains: will DEI education always be relegated to the margins of education at MIT?

When looking at the full listing of undergraduate subjects, we can be heartened by those that focus on issues of racial and social injustice in literature, history, media, and culture, as well as in management, philosophy, and urban planning. With a few exceptions, these subjects exist almost entirely in SHASS.

In contrast, DEI learning is nearly invisible in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classrooms.

Certainly, some technical instructors provide DEI-related lectures, assignments, or modules, but these are rare and often tangential to the primary focus of the subject. DEI learning opportunities in STEM occur primarily in the form of extracurricular workshops, events, committees, and working groups. These are asterisks clinging to work that is much more valued at MIT.

Outside of classrooms, systemic inequities are rarely at the forefront of departmental meeting agendas, hiring decisions, tenure priorities, and curriculum planning. For MIT students, teachers, and staff, DEI work is overwhelmingly extracurricular, voluntary, and segregated from the existing reward structures of the Institute.

Will MIT ever value the DEI labor of our community members, including our teachers and students? Will MIT ever prioritize DEI education across the curriculum, including within STEM majors?

A call for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Major (DEI-M) subjects

One possible way to center DEI education within the STEM curriculum would be to create a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Major (DEI-M) subject in every department. The DEI-M subject could focus on the historical, ongoing, and anticipated systemic injustices within the specific discipline. For example, a DEI-M subject in Course 22 could involve an examination of racial and gender oppression within nuclear science and engineering (NSE), both in academia and industry. The DEI-M subject might also explore how the products and technologies developed in the field impact marginalized communities, both positively and negatively.

The DEI-M subject could also review case studies of prior and current anti-racist and anti-misogynist activism within the particular field. The coursework could also be change-oriented, with assignments that ask students to generate research-based DEI interventions in academic and industry contexts. Ultimately, students in every major would have the opportunity to interrogate the DEI landscape of their chosen field, imagine what justice could look like in their profession, and consider how they might generate positive change.

Is DEI education necessary for STEM majors?

Some might argue that a STEM major does not need to understand DEI issues in order to be a “successful” computer scientist, or a “great” physicist, or an “innovative” chemist. This perspective suggests that learning about systemic injustices has no place within STEM education, because there is much more important technical work to be done. It’s high time we expand our conceptions of “success,” “greatness,” and “innovation” for the sake of our students and future generations.

While some STEM faculty might be excited to welcome a DEI-focused subject within their department, others might feel reluctant. Reactions might include: “There’s no room in our curriculum for DEI stuff,” “Don’t they have HASS classes for this sort of thing?”, and “Who would even teach this in our department?” These types of imagined responses are understandable. The inclusion of a DEI-M subject would require financial and human resources, as well as an expansion of the department’s educational mission. The reticence to “make room for DEI stuff” may also stem from the desire to avoid the discomfort of sharing with students the oppression that exists within our own disciplines.

Fortunately, we have a model for successful curriculum integration at MIT: the Communication Requirement framework.

Prior to the launch of the Communication Requirement, MIT students reported a lack of communication growth during their undergraduate years, and alumni reported their unpreparedness for the communication work expected of them in their professions. MIT responded to this knowledge gap by embedding communication instruction across the curriculum, including the development of communication-intensive (CI) subjects within STEM majors. Beginning with the class of 2005, undergraduates have been required to complete both CI-H and CI-M subjects, each of which contributes to their learning in different ways. The CI-M subjects serve a unique and targeted purpose – they are situated directly within the majors to engage students in the communication practices of their specific field. These subjects are typically taught by an instructional team with relevant areas of expertise.

We could learn from the success of this integrated model in the effort to embed DEI learning across MIT. Situating DEI-M subjects within the majors would make the content urgently relevant and readily transferable for students, while communicating a broader message that DEI teaching and learning is valued at MIT. Since each DEI-M subject would be tailored to a specific field, a teaching team with varied lived experiences and expertise rather than a single instructor would likely be needed. Assembling such an instructional team would require developing an effective hiring process and securing financial resources. The hiring process itself could be a team effort among MIT’s officers for diversity, department heads, faculty, students, and ICEO John Dozier.

Is MIT ready to center DEI education within the STEM curriculum?

Improving the systemic injustices underlying our school and society, including those within the disciplines we teach, requires an all-hands-on-deck commitment. Embedding this difficult work within all majors, and rewarding students, teachers, and staff for their DEI labor would represent a turning point in the purpose and scope of technical education at MIT.

Imagine scrolling through the MIT subject listings and seeing a DEI-M subject in every department. Imagine seeing justice woven into the fabric of technical learning at MIT. Every student could leave the Institute ready “to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind,” as the MIT mission urges. We could provide thousands of undergraduates the opportunity to critically examine their chosen field, and incorporate justice as part of, rather than separate from, their technical work.

To develop an inclusive curriculum, however, our Institute leaders would need to believe that there is a role for DEI education within STEM, and that such an endeavor would be worth the trouble and investment. I think an experiment that attempts to embed DEI learning within the STEM curriculum – whether through DEI-M subjects or some other explicit approach – is certainly worth a try, and I hope you do too.

If you support embedding DEI learning within STEM education at MIT you can add your name and ideas to this form, which will be shared with MIT leadership in the coming weeks.