Tag Archives: KVPR

On reaching beyond the low hanging fruit in science education

Yale lowhangingfruit

I woke up this spring break morning to a bit of a buzz on twitter that seems relevant to concerns I’ve expressed here in the past, and to my job as a prof at a CSU campus (and no, it wasn’t some April Fool’s prank). Terry McGlynn (fellow ecologist from CSU-Dominguez Hills) has a new post up on his blog Small Pond Science expressing some consternation that Harvard’s 6700 undergraduates received exactly the same number of NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships as did the 392,951 students in the entire CSU system this year. He then reflects on some of the challenges of helping our students succeed in science careers in the face of what appear to be larger scale institutional and systemic barriers and constraints (if not active biases).

This bit at the end of Terry’s post resonates with me:

Not that long after I started my job at CSU Dominguez Hills, a good friend of mine came to visit campus and give a talk. I was griping about a series of challenges I consistently face, like riding a bike into a very strong wind. He was telling me how he was thrilled for the potential in front of me. I remember how he said it: I had the chance to literally remake the [white] face of ecology. Every student that I send on to graduate school would have a measurable effect. If I wanted to make change, then, he argued, then this is the perfect place for it. And I’m a guy who can make that happen.

I think he’s right. As several years have passed, I draw on this conversation for inspiration. I really need that inspiration for moments like these, when I realize how hard I have to pedal into the wind, when students at more privileged institutions have the wind at their backs. If we are going to make science equitable, then it must come from institutions like mine. If opportunity continues to overpass us, then the injustice persists.

Sometimes, I really feel like I want to stop pedaling. I have that option, but my students don’t.

I know the feeling of pedaling into that strong wind. I have been pedaling into that wind for over a decade now.

Terry’s post has triggered some good (and some frustrating) discussion both on his blog, and on social media. Some agree that there is a problem, others find his analysis superficial in not really looking at the demographics of who applies for and who gets NSF’s GRFs across the board. Yes, more in depth analysis would be useful and might help us crack the tough nut of how to get more underrepresented students and groups into science. I suspect someone may be doing more of this analysis already, and will look for such. Meanwhile, there are those asserting that this is nothing but meritocracy working at its best already – or perhaps even against merit in the opposite direction, because Harvard students are, but of course, better prepared and more interested in getting into PhD programs and are therefore more likely to be applying for these fellowships. So, if anything, they are being penalized by not getting way more GRFs than the CSU students. Must be nice up in that meritocracy.

Meanwhile, in our world, as Terry notes in a comment under his post:

Of course there are deeper problems that cause students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for grad school and graduate fellowships in lower numbers.

Allow me to add to that broader context, about the deeper problems faced by our students. Such has having a full belly while attending college. Which makes this nut just a bit harder to crack.

Last fall, as we were heading into the holiday feasting season, I wrote a commentary about the problem of hunger on our campus which was broadcast on Valley Public Radio, as part of the series The Moral Is (for which I am a regular contributor). You can listen to me reading the commentary through the audio link on their website. Or read this slightly more expanded (and hyperlinked) text here:

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Educating The Poor And The Hungry

by Dr. Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Fresno
November 2014. 

What is the value of a university education? What is the price of a university education? How much does society value education as a public good?

We must pause to ponder these questions as we head into another holiday season, when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and are urged to share with those less fortunate. As a professor at a public university, I have a vested interest in how we answer these questions. For I am appalled by the fact that more and more of my students are among those less fortunate in today’s society, and yet we are not doing enough to help them.

A recent survey at Fresno State tells me that one in three of the students looking up at me in my classroom faces food insecurity: they are literally hungry, not just for knowledge. Another 20% are close to that brink if not over it quite yet. Most will stagger to the finish line still hungry, graduating under a life sentence of crushing debt.

It is hard not to find the student debt burden immoral when the Congressional Budget Office announces that the US Department of Education profited to the tune of $51 billion on student loans. (The actual profit margin has been debated, for the accounting may be complex, and most of the profit may be based on penalizing graduate students more than undergrads, but nevertheless, the CBO projects healthy profits from student loans.) Meanwhile, we keep telling kids that they must go to college if they want to be ready for a career, taking on loans to invest in their future. 

Even as developed nations like Germany offer free university education, American public universities remain underfunded. So they keep hiking tuition, hire more low-wage adjunct faculty, and keep salaries for tenured professors (but not administrators) stagnant. Some campuses, like my own, even charge hidden “success fees“, tacitly acknowledging that normal fees are not nearly enough to ensure our students succeed through an undergraduate degree any more. 

We might as well ask students to plop down their credit cards when they arrive, as we put their diploma on layaway to be collected after they’ve paid the full price of tuition over 4-6 years. How much can or should they care about actually learning anything, on an often empty belly, given the high price-tag on that diploma? We have let education become a commodity transaction between overworked, underpaid, insecure faculty teaching overloaded classes full of hungry, indebted students facing uncertain futures.

Agricultural universities like Fresno State might offer food pantries to help students, although charity is the last thing they need. The federal government may lower interest rates on student loans. Real lasting solutions, though, require fundamental changes in how we fund and run universities, to empower students. American society must do some soul searching to decide what the real value of education is, not just for the individual student seeking a job, but for a once advanced nation that has lost its way. Lady liberty may hold a beacon welcoming the hungry, tired, huddled masses to America. In my university classroom though, I urge you to send me eager well-fed students, hungry only for knowledge.

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That is the broader context within which we must try to prepare our students for careers in science, encouraging underrepresented minority students with no cultural inheritance of science (or even university education at all) in their familial backgrounds to get into science PhD programs at a time when we also lament the overproduction of PhDs in the sciences! That is the context within which we must recognize the place of science/STEM education, and figure out how we can make science more representative and inclusive.

That is the wind into which we must keep pedaling our bicycles so we might help more of our students (and not just the “low-hanging fruit”) get up on that shiny hill of meritocracy.

The Conscience of an Asteroid

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my original, extended version of the essay, before it was pared down for broadcast. You can imagine me reading it in your head, or listen to the broadcast version recorded in my voice.

Artist's impression of asteroid slamming into tropical seas near Yucatan.

Painting by Donald E. Davis depicts an asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the sulfur-rich Yucatan Peninsula in what is today southeast Mexico. More info: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/files/images/captions/p45062.txt

Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid crashed into the earth near modern day Yucatan, setting off a chain of geological and climatic reactions that wiped out the dinosaurs. Nearly 70% of all species alive on that day disappeared forever.

This was the last known mass extinction event in Earth’s history. It was the fifth time that such a mass extinction has occurred on our planet. As far as we know.

The history of these extinctions is quite literally written in stone, in the fossils trapped in layers of rock. Like the pages of an ancient and incomplete book, these layers are inscribed with the story of the plants and animals and bacteria that have lived and died here since long before us.

The tools of paleontology help us decipher these stories written in stone. We can read of the long age of bacteria and other single-celled organisms; of the time when the air held no oxygen because no one had figured out how to make food from sunlight; of the first time that living organisms changed the global climate by releasing oxygen, likely triggering the first mass extinction of species who couldn’t breathe the air that sustains us now.

A later chapter tells of the age of carbon, when dense forests covered the land, before getting buried deep under it to be transformed into coal and oil. Now we burn the solar energy captured in carbon by those ancient forests to enrich our short lives. In doing so, we have transformed the earth’s climate yet again, dangerously.

The first stirrings of plants and animals on to land make for thrilling reading. We particularly love the tale of the plucky fish caught in tidal pools which began breathing the air and crawling around on land! How they eventually gave rise to the land mammals we call our own kin.

We discover pieces of our own story everyday, from humble origins as apes that stood up in Africa and spread out of that continent probably to escape a changing climate, and eventually occupied the entire planet.

Five times during the past billion years, this riveting story is interrupted by unspeakable horrors as some terrifying series of unfortunate events conspired to wipe out most species. Each time, the survivors got a fresh start to evolve on a mostly empty planet.

The Great Dying at the end of the Permian era 250 million years ago was the worst one yet, driving more than 90% of species extinct, including many among the otherwise hardy insects. But it cleared the way for reptiles and mammals. We don’t quite know what caused the Permian mass extinction, but massive, perhaps sudden climate change may have a played a big role.

The asteroid that took out the big dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous was a mere lump of rock drifting in orbit around the sun until it fell to Earth and wiped life’s slate almost clean for the fifth time. Driven by sheer gravity, that asteroid had no conscience or remorse about the horrors it would unleash. Nor any notion that humanity would eventually evolve in the absence of dinosaurs to become another force of mass extinction.

Now we find ourselves on yet another brink, where our own industrial civilization threatens a Sixth Great Dying. Within the past century, we have increased the pace of extinction, willfully or unwittingly, to a level last seen only in the wake of that asteroid. We have come so far, in building our diverse cultures and technologies, achieved so much worth celebrating given our humble origins. Yet our biggest legacy may end up as the epitaph for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, which will doom us just as surely.

We like to think of ourselves as creatures of conscience, infused with a morality and an intellect that allows us to understand and appreciate our kinship with other creatures. But as drivers of this sixth extinction, how different are we from that asteroid? Will our conscience give us pause and pull us back from the horrors we have unleashed? Or will we let our own chapter end abruptly, wiping the slate clean again, just like that remorseless asteroid?

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Nelson Mandela and the long walk to reconciling humanity with nature

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. Somehow, it even caught the eye of the Ecological Society of America, which posted about it on their blog. Here’s my original version of the essay, before it was edited down for broadcast.

MandelaMonument sustainability quote

The iconic Nelson Mandela monument via Fr Lawrence Lew, OP on Flickr

With the passing of Nelson Mandela last month, we lost one of the strongest needles in humanity’s moral compass.

While many aspects of Mandela’s remarkable life are justly celebrated, one of the brightest moral beacons is surely his establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After 27 years spent behind bars, the world would have understood, maybe even condoned him had he gone after his oppressors seeking retribution for the injustices he and his fellow black South Africans had suffered under the white rulers of apartheid.

Instead, Mandela chose the path of reconciliation, bringing victims and oppressors together in nationwide public hearings to air out the real stories of injustice. Subverting any desire for victor’s justice, he found ways to heal the nation without bloodshed. Someone who had once been labeled a terrorist for supporting the overthrow of an oppressive regime had found a way to not only forswear violence, but to actually forgive his own jailers and the other perpetrators of injustices against his people.

Perhaps even more remarkably, his people followed his leadership, and accepted the path of reconciliation to bring South Africa into the community of nations as a new kind of democracy and a leader in the so-called Dark Continent. Others have since set up their own Truth and Reconciliation commissions to deal with crimes and injustices in their countries.

While this process of seeking truth and reconciling formerly antagonistic parties shows remarkable promise to transform human society, can we extend the power of reconciliation to heal humanity’s deepening rift with Nature?

Ever since the industrial revolution, our relationship with Nature is marked by our increasing exploitation of resources in the interests of profit and prosperity for some members of our species. We have transformed the Earth’s very surface, ushering in a new geological era—the Anthropocene—and have pushed many other living beings to the brink of extinction, if not right over that cliff. Earth’s biodiversity has endured at least 5 other mass extinction events in its history, when various natural forces—from volcanoes to meteors—wiped out over 90% of the species. We, the industrial engine of the ongoing 6th mass extinction, are the first such planetary force to have a moral conscience capable of being troubled by what we wreak.

Even as we justify our actions in the name of economic growth or progress, our morality tells us that something is deeply wrong when they result in the ravaging of the planet, and the devastation of so much life. How can we reconcile our destructive acts with any morality that teaches us to respect life, and to be good stewards of the land for future generations?

Can we expand Mandela’s vision of reconciliation to offer ourselves a shot at redemption from Nature, just like he offered his oppressors? Unlike him, Nature is amoral and lacks any conscience to offer us a path at redemption. It is up to us, therefore, to recognize the consequences of our actions, admit our culpability, indeed guilt, in destroying Nature, and seek forgiveness—through actions which repair the damage we have done—if we are to ride out this Anthropocene extinction crisis with our civilization intact.

Mandela once said

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Nature, of course, is not our enemy, although we’ve been acting like all of Earth is enemy territory we must conquer. In 2003, speaking at the IUCN’s World Parks Congress in South Africa, Mandela also said

A sustainable future for humankind depends on a caring partnership with nature as much as anything else.

Can we make peace with the Earth, start working with Nature and transform ourselves into her partner?

Even as many former supporters of apartheid and critics of Mandela turned around to celebrate his life last month, can we turn ourselves around as a civilization, to reconcile and rebuild our relationship with Nature? That would be the deepest, most meaningful way to expand Mandela’s legacy.