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A Social Scientist's Perspective on STEM Education

Emorcia Hill

Emorcia V. Hill, PhD, Director, Research and Evaluation, Converge: Building Inclusion in the Sciences through Research, Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership, HMS is a sociologist who applies system approaches to research and evaluation. Dr. Hill has substantial experience in the design, implementation, research and evaluation of educational and social welfare programs across different organizational settings and sectors. Her expertise is in basic and applied research, program development and policy analysis that draw on multiple disciplines and perspectives. Dr. Hill's formal training and considerable professional experience includes quantitative and qualitative research methods. As a program administrator, Dr. Hill has designed and implemented programs for underrepresented populations to increase their access and success in academia and industry. These programs include individual and institutional strategies, and at local, regional and national levels.

Q: Can you tell us more about your work and how it relates to STEM education?

Hill: I am a sociologist engaged in research and evaluation that addresses human capital and human resource development in the biomedical, behavioral and science, technology, engineering mathematics (STEM) fields. The knowledge gained from these scientific inquiries provides insights into how to advance STEM education across populations. The application and utilization of the knowledge is essential in developing effective strategies and interventions that meaningfully improve STEM education.

Q: What do you see as the trajectory of the state of STEM education in the US in the next 10 years, particularly as it concerns underrepresented groups? Is it improving or getting worse?

Hill: STEM education cannot be separated from the broader educational system. We understand that reading, writing and arithmetic/mathematics are fundamental to basic education and are an essential precondition for academic and career success. Today, the artificial separation between STEM and non-STEM education exacerbates the country's capacity to adequately prepare all students for STEM education and careers. To the extent that there is a persistent achievement gap, if not remediated, the current trajectory and the divides will remain unchanged and in fact are at risk of increasing. STEM education as does all education is a cumulative process. Where opportunities to gain knowledge and competencies are unavailable or unequally distributed, skill acquisition is highly unlikely which in turn negatively affects the conditions necessary to more fully and systemically advance STEM education. Taken together, these factors ultimately influence the trajectory of the state of STEM education in the US in the next 10 years, particularly as it concerns underrepresented groups.

Q: Are you familiar with the state of STEM education in any other developing countries, maybe in Africa or in the Caribbean and whether they face similar challenges faced in the US?

Hill: Currently the US holds the distinction of being a developed country, a status typically associated with the availability of resources that can be deployed for social and economic development. This is unlike developing countries where resources are scarce. Developing countries such as those in the Caribbean, may likely have historically under-invested in STEM education which accounts for the state of STEM education in the region and the challenges they now face in bolstering STEM education and career opportunities. This is unlike the US which has historically invested in STEM education, but stark inequities remain. Any comparison of the US and developing countries should be sensitive of the scale of the challenges vis--vis the historical context and the prevailing socioeconomic conditions in each county. Without such calibration, such a comparison is tantamount to one between apples and oranges.

Q: Is money the answer to our nation's STEM education problems? If so, where specifically do you think we need more financial resources to be applied?

Hill: Money is one component of the answer to our nation's STEM education problems. The nation has invested in STEM education. It would be interesting to determine the full level of investment and in particular the distribution of that investment across populations. This would be a necessary first step to determining where best to deploy future financial resources to maximize the outcomes. Additionally, there is an evidence-base about emerging practices that support STEM education and careers which would suggest that we have some insights into what strategies may possibly work. This underutilized knowledge may well be a fruitful area to explore and to which financial resources can be strategically allocated.

Q: What inspired you to choose your career path? What challenges did you have to face?

Hill: A curious and questioning mind led me to research along with lots of people along the way who believed in me and provided firm guiding and helping hands. This is coupled with an idealist view that "things" can be different and that I have a role and responsibility to make a difference where I can. At the PhD level, the overriding challenge was to constantly remind myself that I had "crossed salt-water" to seek an advanced degree and non-completion was not an option, especially when I saw bright talented peers fall by the wayside.

Q: What advice would you give to others who may be interested in pursuing direct career paths in a STEM field or related path in advocating for STEM education?

Hill: Maintain high expectations for yourself when others do not and demonstrate excellence in your personal and professional lives. Do not be undaunted by the magnitude of the task and especially do not allow others to derail or stymie your plans - stay focused. Seek help and support when you need it--recognize that you need help and never believe that others are not receiving help abundantly from multiple sources. Be willing to work hard. Always, always be receptive to advice and direction from others who have walked this course before and who are supportive of your success and aspirations. Find an internal barometer and use it often.

Disclaimer: The views represented are those of Dr. Hill and not those of Harvard Medical School or its affiliated hospitals.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)