Do you know a farmer … a scientist … a military member? Maybe not. But it matters, especially for inspiring youth to pursue STEM careers.
My work aims to improve public engagement with science. To me, that means I am trying to bring scientists together with stakeholders so that together, they can combine their expertises and concerns to address problems on which science can have input based on current understanding of how the world works (to me, probably most problems facing the world today, but I digress).
One of the areas in which I do this specifically, through my work in IFAS at UF, is with agriculture. But we often cite the declining proportion of people working in agriculture as a problem – people used to know farmers, back when about 30% of the U.S. was involved directly in production of food, fuel, and fiber, or lived on production land, around the 1960s (off the top of my head). Today, it’s more like less than 2% of the population. I haven’t looked at historical data, but scientists* comprise about 4.9% of the population as of 2016. (*I use “scientists” here to mean what’s in the linked report – life/physical/natural scientists and engineers, mathematicians, computer occupations, but not including social scientists, geographers, economists, historians, or political scientists, among other behavioral/people sciences). It does include those STEM people who do research and development on agriculture as an applied discipline.
For comparison, I recently found out at a Gainesville/Alachua County Veteran’s memorial that Americans used to know a lot more people who had served in the military. Active duty personnel across the four major branches (not including Coast Guard, it seems) as of 2016 was only 1.3 million, less than 0.5% of the population. Veterans are another 22 million, hovering around 6.7% of the population.
This becomes a problem when 1) trying to recruit people into scientific or “STEM” careers, especially to diversify the STEM workforce to more accurately reflect the ethnic, gender, and diverse-ability status of the American population, 2) trying to help everyone recognize the role science can play in social decisions and de-mystify the idea of “scientists” as these “other” people who are not like any other human being, 3) helping people recognize where their food comes from, and other similar issues I work on. Think about it – how many people in your life do you know with military experience? With agricultural experience? With science experience? For me, I know more of all of these these days, but growing up I wasn’t aware of many scientists, though my dad is an engineer. My grandfather had been a farmer part-time (his full-time job was for the Post Office), but he passed away when I was young. It was only after I’d left home that I think I knew of the military members of my family – a second cousin, a great uncle, and my uncle – but none were active duty when I knew them. Research supports the idea of having local role models: in areas with higher participation of women in the STEM workforce, girls take physics in high school as often as, or moreso, than boys.
My parents knew more of these people, and perhaps that’s why they could encourage me to go into a science career, knowing that it brought a decent salary and social prestige to an extent. Overall, parents have a big influence on career choice. But I’m a white female from an upper-middle-class background. For people of other global majority (underrepresented minority) backgrounds in race and ethnicity, the role of family and family members’ perceptions of science and scientists could make a big difference in career choice, ultimately perhaps diverting some students from scientific careers. In a 2019 survey of adults in 14 countries, 34% of parents may have unintentionally steered their kids away from science, saying things like “I am not a science or math person,” or “science/math won’t be important for your career in the long run,” or “you don’t need to be good in science or math.”
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Hopefully your village has people of a variety of different backgrounds, who can help you know and trust science and perhaps encourage your kids to do the same.