Filling the Sieve and Wondering Why We’re Still Thirsty: A Call to Humanize the STEM Workplace for Educators and Students

Author(s):
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Chelsea LeNoble, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Industrial / Organizational Psychology
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Author(s):
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David LeNoble, M.A.ED.
Assistant Director
Global Leadership Academy
Editor:
Dr. Mica Estrada stands in a garden
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Mica Estrada, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Institute for Health & Aging, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of California San Francisco

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

 

– John Keating played by Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

“You know that Robin Williams line about how science sustains life and all, but art is what we live for?”

“Oh, from Dead Poets Society?”

“That’s it!”

These words were the start of the conversation between a private university early-career assistant professor and a STEM high school assistant principal with decades of teaching experience, about the importance of ensuring that education focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) also focuses on the heart, mind, body, and soul of learners. Not as an afterthought but as a priority.

These words were also the start of one regular daughter-father weekend Zoom chat that we’d been having during the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel between Florida and Colorado was only safe via personal vehicle. And who has time for that?

“How does this work at your school? I think it’s necessary, and I’m still worried that continuously asking teachers to better support their students ignores teachers’ burnout.”

“That’s exactly the problem. We want to make things better, but where’s the time? Where are the resources? Balancing these expectations can be exhausting”

Lots of emphatic Yeses!’ and hand-waving ensued. How was it that the experiences of a university professor and high school administrator nearly 2000 miles apart had so much overlap? If primary and secondary STEM teachers, undergraduate STEM instructors, and the greater STEM workforce are all experiencing issues of burnout, have we somehow created an entire STEM education pipeline of depletion and a culture of burnout? All while calls to humanize curricula are being made?

The Need to Humanize Undergraduate STEM Educators

“When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”

 

– Eleanor Brownn

Many consider the current landscape of undergraduate STEM education to be characterized by high rates of work stress1-2 and inequity across identities of “race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, age, and/or ability”3, p.93. Some have regarded times of disruption, like COVID-19, as opportunities to change things for the better4. However, disruption is a form of adversity that can cause a great deal of stress—even post-traumatic stress disorder—for everyone involved5. The undergraduate STEM education community cannot ignore the strain its educators currently experience and how disruption amplifies these challenges. Placing additional stress on people working in a strained system exacerbates inequity and injustice6-8.

Humanizing the work environment for undergraduate STEM educators is a necessary component of humanizing the learning environment for students—in times of disruption and calm alike. The work involved in humanizing the undergraduate STEM learning environment (like sharing personal stories and showing vulnerability9,10) can be taxing for faculty. Emotional and relational energy11 as well as higher brain functioning is needed for the kind of interpersonal interactions and emotion regulation12,13 that allow faculty to authentically engage in humanistic efforts. Offering help, supporting others, demonstrating empathy, and cultivating a culture of trust can deplete that energy11,14.

Undergraduate STEM faculty experiencing burnout may not have the bandwidth to implement new pedagogical strategies that increase inclusion and equity, provide support to other faculty, or even seek support from others15. This can negatively impact undergraduate STEM students as well. Motivation and achievement of students are lower when their teachers are experiencing burnout16-17. Undergraduate STEM faculty become role models for their students, so students exposed to learning environment norms of exhaustion and overwork may adopt habits that contribute to their own burnout over time18-19 or abandon STEM careers to avoid this burnout.

Transforming a Culture of Burnout into a Culture of Care

“This is how we do it…” – Montell Jordan

A culture of care has been identified as important for undergraduate STEM students20-23, and we believe that this idea must expand to include humanizing the faculty workplace. We summarize how this differs, broadly, from a culture of burnout in Table 1. It’s important to note that there are a range of intersecting identities that will influence what different people experience as burnout versus care, and we by no means claim to have addressed everyone’s experiences.

Table 1: Features of a Culture of Burnout Versus a Culture of Care
Table 1: Features of a Culture of Burnout Versus a Culture of Care (Click to access the PDF)

This table juxtaposes the characteristics of a culture of burnout to a culture of care for six different categories of norms in educational settings. For each norm, research literature that may help change the culture is offered. (Click to view PDF.)

We like using the metaphor of a generator to explain why it’s important to humanize undergraduate STEM educators so that they can humanize the learning environment (Figure 1). While it might seem counterintuitive to compare a person to a machine as a way to humanize educators, this metaphor synthesizes multiple organizational theories related to workplace well-being and draws attention to factors that are not typically acknowledged by the STEM education community when thinking about faculty effectiveness at work.

Just as human energy is limited and can be depleted11, generators are limited by their fuel source. The maximum wattage capacity, which varies across generators, represents an educator’s ability, and the fuel represents the educator’s energy, both of which are necessary for undergraduate STEM educators to engage in their work31. Generators work best when they expend fewer watts than their maximum capacity; plugging in more devices will drain the generator’s fuel more rapidly. Similarly, the more demands faculty face, the less energy they will have to engage their whole, authentic selves in work to humanize STEM education32.

Figure 1: Generator Metaphor for Resources and Demands Involved in STEM Faculty Effectiveness
This graphic shows a generator that's humanized and burnout trajectories are determined by the sources & reliability of fuel source, the individual difference including traits and experiences, and the amount and intensity of energetic output.

This figure presents the generator analogy and is derived from organizational theory related to resources, demands, effortful activity, and well-being. (Click to view PDF.)

To understand what undergraduate STEM faculty need to engage in humanizing efforts, we must first acknowledge that these efforts (e.g., enrichment activities, mentoring) require a certain amount of energy above and beyond existing obligations. For instance, faculty who strive to support under-represented students may receive praise from administrators but do so at the risk of diverting time away from activities that “count” for tenure35.

Further, faculty have vastly different experiences and face different challenges36, so those grappling with stressors without sufficient support may struggle when asked to do one more thing37—even if they truly want to meaningfully connect with and engage their students. The undergraduate STEM education community needs to acknowledge challenges like these and ask whether faculty truly have what they need to offer students a more humanized experience. Doing so will help dismantle a culture of burnout in exchange for one of care.

Bringing It Together and Moving Forward

“All that you touch/ You Change. All that you Change/ Changes you.”

– Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

The necessity of large-scale change that cultivates a culture of care and improves efforts to humanize STEM education for all students and educators cannot be overstated; we may be unable to overcome burnout without it. This doesn’t change the fact that tomorrow is just an alarm-set away. We still need to gas up and get to work.

To start, we encourage you to consider your own generator’s fuel, capacity, and output. These components are likely to look different for different people based on experiences, social identities, roles, and responsibilities. For us, the simple act of having this conversation helps us as we navigate our roles as STEM educators. Below, we share additional resources that have helped us and invite you to consider their applicability to you and your institution (Table 2).

Table 2: Resources for Generating a Culture of Care
Table 2: Resources for Generating a Culture of Care (Click to Expand)

This table offers a sampling of resources identified by the authors as helpful for cultivating a culture of care and provides corresponding generator components from Figure 1 where relevant. (Click to view PDF.)

Acknowledgements

We are deeply grateful for the guidance and feedback offered by Dr. Mica Estrada and the AAAS team, which helped us make substantial improvements to this piece.

References

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