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Week-long course in Montreal to tackle equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM

20 master’s and PhD students from Canada and abroad will be selected to take part in the Concordia University Interdisciplinary Summer Institute at the end of May
February 28, 2019
“There are unconscious biases that influence people’s choices in life, and these biases must be overcome.”

Why are women and minorities historically underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

Why is it important to have as much variety as possible in the scientific and research communities? And how can we halt the reproduction of unconscious biases when we think of STEM?

These are just a few of the questions that the week-long Concordia University Interdisciplinary Summer Institute (CUISI) is set to engage with this summer.

Twenty master’s and PhD students from across Canadian and international universities will be selected to participate in the three-credit graduate course, which runs from May 27 to 31.

Concordia professors Tanja Tajmel and Stefanie Ruel are leading the seminar along with invited speakers Katemari Rosa, a professor in the Institute of Physics at the Federal University in Bahia, Brazil, and Mary Beth Doucette, assistant professor and Purdy Crawford Chair at Cape Breton University’s Shannon School of Business and a Membertou band member.

“‘Diversity in STEM’ is a question of social equality and not only a question of ‘better workforce’ or ‘better output’.” says Tajmel, an associate professor with Concordia’s Centre for Engineering in Society at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science.

Primarily, STEM education is a human right. The underrepresentation of women, people of colour and other groups in STEM is the product of centuries of discrimination on different levels. It’s more than simply a question of unconscious bias: it is social inequality and it’s time to fully address these issues in order to give the buzzword ‘diversity’ a deeper sense.

"We are building our future, so if certain groups are excluded or underrepresented, the future won't be as developed and socially equal as it could be."

‘Diverse research is better research’

The institute will address core concepts of gender, diversity and intersectionality as well as core objectives of equality, inclusion and human rights. Mornings and afternoons will be devoted to lectures and workshops by different speakers.

"For example, one day is dedicated to discussing colonialism and STEM, during which we’ll be going on a field trip to Kahnawake to meet experts and learn about STEM-initiatives of the local Indigenous community," says Tajmel, whose research and advocacy focuses on intersectional discrimination in the field of STEM.

‘The evidence is clear’

Tajmel insists there are very real practical benefits to increasing heterogeneity in problem-solving or research groups working on the everyday applications of engineering, math or medicine. A more varied group will tend to generate more creativity and think more comprehensively about potential reactions or the accessibility and acceptability of solutions.

"Take traffic lights in a city. If you only have, say, healthy 30-somethings designing the lights, it's likely that the timing to cross the street won't be sufficient for older people, children or people with reduced mobility,” she says.

“Likewise, if you have an overrepresentation of white and/or male scientists doing research in STEM it’s likely that this research addresses white and/or male interests and reproduces white and/or male worldviews.

“We have to be conscious of these problems as much as possible."

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) concurs: "The evidence is clear. Equity, diversity and inclusion strengthens the scientific and engineering communities and the quality, social relevance and impact of research."

Creativity through interdisciplinarity

An emphasis on interdisciplinarity has become increasingly popular in the last decade and for good reason, according to Effrosyni Diamantoudi, associate dean of Recruitment and Awards at the School of Graduate Studies and professor of economics in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

"Interdisciplinarity encourages people to get out of their boxes and start talking to people in other fields, and that's how big surprises come about," Diamantoudi says.

She says the focus of this year's CUISI is timely and intersects nicely with interdisciplinarity, or intellectual mixing.

"By having a diversified population in a certain discipline you will get better and richer results,” Diamantoudi adds.

“The reason we don't have as many women and minorities in STEM is not because they're not good at it, but because they're not encouraged to go into these fields at a young age. There are unconscious biases that influence people’s choices in life, and these biases must be overcome."

Grad students from all disciplines and post-secondary institutions can apply for the 2019
Concordia University Interdisciplinary Summer Institute until March 29.



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