Geography and STEM

I knew that I had put my finger on something important when I sent out a message on a listserv and received multiple responses almost immediately and continuously for the next few days. As I’m sure most of us have experienced, our inboxes can fill up overnight with seemingly unimportant messages that are left unread. But clearly the title of my message – Geography and STEM — caught people’s attention. What’s even more impressive about the responses I received is that the message was being sent to chairs of geography departments, a group of people who most likely already receive tons of annoying messages from everyone wanting something. I tried to keep my email short and to the point, asking for two responses: was geography considered a STEM discipline at their institution, and in what ways did the STEM designation matter, leaving open an option of addressing ‘other’ related concerns about geography and STEM. I received over 40 responses, most at least a couple of paragraphs long. Impressive by all counts. In this column I want to review why this is such an important, ambiguous, and anxiety-inducing topic, summarize what many of my respondents said in regard to STEM, and suggest some ways to be “strategic opportunists.”

For those uninitiated or not from the United States, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, fields that many academic and political leaders in the United States have assessed as important for the present and future growth of our economy, and fields in which American students are not excelling. Strengthening the teaching of STEM fields in K-12 and higher education, therefore, has been heralded as essential to our global competitiveness by key figures in American education and politics, from the President of the United States, to provosts of major research universities, to principals and superintendents of school systems. As a result, funding at all levels has been increased for STEM, often at the cost of support for other disciplines. We could certainly contest why these particular disciplines and ways of knowing the world have been singled out for attention and funding (as many, particularly in the humanities, have done) but for the sake of this short column I want to focus on the realities most of us are facing right now as we try to maneuver with and through STEM.

The status of Geography vis-à-vis STEM is ambiguous for two primary reasons. First, there is no one agreed upon national definition of what specific fields of study STEM refers to. The Department of Homeland Security includes Geographic Information Science and Cartography as a STEM discipline (this is important in terms of international student recruitment), while the National Science Foundation includes geography in its list of disciplines eligible for STEM funding for most of its graduate educational competitions. The field of Geosciences (and therefore most of physical geography) is included in both definitions. Second, geography is a broadly interdisciplinary discipline, what I referred to in my first column as radically intra-disciplinary. Prodded by the AAG, the National Research Council now includes four subfields within Geography and Regional Science, two of which (Physical and Environmental Geography, Geographic Information Science) are clearly STEM fields by all counts (the other two are Human and Cultural Geography and Nature and Society Relations). And according to a study completed in 2005, 28 percent of all geography faculty teaching in graduate programs identify with one of those two STEM fields. More recently, a study of the types of degrees offered by geography bachelor and masters programs in the United States found that more than 50 percent of those programs offered a BS/MS with emphases on Physical Geography and/or Geographical Information Sciences.[1] Given the ambiguity caused by geography’s intra-disciplinarity and the lack of one agreed upon definition of STEM, and because so much is at stake, there is indeed cause for anxiety.

And that ambiguity and latent anxiety is reflected in my not scientific (and therefore not STEM!) but very informative survey of geography department chairs. The responses to the first question were almost evenly divided between those whose universities had deemed geography a STEM discipline, those that had not, and those that had split the difference (some courses considered STEM, some not). One of the more interesting insights from the responses that I received is that some of the designations had clearly hinged on the school/college that housed geography: whether a college of science or a college of liberal arts/social sciences. Some geography departments that had merged with (or re-branded themselves, see Julie Winkler’s recent column) departments of geosciences, for example, were then clearly placed within schools/colleges of science and considered STEM. Most illuminating, of course, were the responses to my second query: in what ways did this designation matter. The two primary responses were in regard to funding and student enrollment. And again my responses were almost evenly split between those departments that were experiencing increases in funding and enrollment because geography was considered STEM, and those that were just the opposite.

The most passionate responses came from two sources. Departments that were not in any way included in STEM are experiencing declines in student enrollment, particularly in their physical geography and geospatial courses. Without STEM designation, these courses are sort of “remaindered,” left only to fulfill major requirements. On the other hand (and the other source of passionate responses) departments that are STEM-designated are losing enrollment/status in their human/cultural geography courses, again left as “remainders” for major credit only. I suspect these responses were most passionate and anxiety-riddled because they are about hierarchies, the prioritization of one part of geography over another. This perhaps is the most pernicious aspect of STEM initiatives: the risk that geography is pulled apart and that we become less than the sum of our parts, instead of more than. We can ill afford to do that.

So, what to do? I received quite a few responses from department chairs who were able to take STEM initiatives and put them to geography’s advantage. Montana State University, for example, has used NSF funding focused on supporting women in STEM to hire three new faculty members, two of whom do integrative human/physical, qualitative/quantitative research; in other words, geography. Other departments are making sure that university administrators understand that geography is intra-disciplinary, that it houses STEM and non-STEM courses and ways of understanding the world, and that putting those two together is productive intellectually and practically. In my first column I used the term strategic essentialism; here I want to introduce a related term, strategic opportunism. We cannot afford to let STEM pass us by, but we need to pursue the opportunities it affords us strategically, in a thoughtful, forward-thinking way that promotes what is best about geography as a whole and that does not prioritize one way of understanding the world over another. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about this important matter, and to learning about how different geographers and departments have maneuvered in this ambiguous and anxious world of strategic opportunities.

[1] See Rajibul Al Mamun, Does the Geography Major Fit in STEM?, Journal of Geography and Geology, 2015. DOI: 10.5539/jgg.v7n1p27.

— Mona Domosh

DOI: 10.14433/2014.0021