April 7, 2016

Diversify Our Thinkers, Diversify Our Thoughts

Groups like The Think Tank make much needed strides in STEM field diversity.

Meet Daniel Casasanto, one of the brains behind The Think Tank, a mobile neuroscience lab and education station with a very important mission: accelerating diversity in STEM. The lime-green truck with its giant, glowing fiberglass brain (the Illuminoggin) has been bringing neuroplasticity and live demonstrations to the city’s streets and schools since 2013. Led by undergraduate students from the University of Chicago, demonstrations revolve around neuroplasticity and the brain’s incredible ability to adapt.

“We have the power to change our brains,” Casasanto explained with a smile, detailing the demonstrations, “but most people have the impression that things like talent and intelligence are God-given in fixed quantities due to nearly a century of research which has been proven wrong.”

“It’s incredibly important for students to know this, especially underrepresented students,” he continued, suddenly serious.

“There’s actually a theory, called the Growth-Mindset Theory, which believes that if you can convey this to students, it produces dramatic results in and outside of the classroom.”

This week, The Think Tank will represent the National Science Foundation at the largest STEM fair in the country, the USA Science & Engineering Festival. Their next big projects include a Scholars program that would bring underrepresented-STEM scientists to UChicago’s campus, and the Big Thinkers program, which would bring highly motivated, underrepresented students to UChicago labs in a two-year mentored apprenticeship. This last project, however, has presented Casasanto and his team with some interesting roadblocks:

“We have no shortage of mentors; students at the University are eager to volunteer! But we need funding for summer jobs for the students we’re reaching out to, so we can bring them to campus labs and involve them in research,” Casasanto explained.

Students coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can’t afford to participate in unpaid internships over the summer. They have to choose a paying job over an unpaid internship, even if that internship could provide them with access to graduate students and tenured faculty in a STEM-affiliated university and bolster their college applications.

The Big Thinkers Program would be an amazing opportunity for underrepresented students, but without the needed funding, it might never happen.  And if underrepresented students don’t get better access to higher education through programs like The Think Tank’s, STEM fields face a familiar, unwanted future:

“We recently partnered with a group in NYC and attended a dinner and discussion. The event was great, but it was discouraging that all four of the people on stage during the discussion were old, white men telling stories about other old, white men,” Casasanto stated with a small shake of the head.

Old, white men are the current face of science and have been the face of science for quite some time. And though they’ve brought much to the table, the scientific community would only profit from the inclusion of more diverse students and academics.

“We can’t change the past, but we can change the future by showing students that brilliance comes in many different forms,” Casasanto stated, confident in his team and their lime-green lab.

In a world where class and race divisions are fraught with tension and in need of a comprehensive solution, The Think Tank seems like an enormous step in the right direction. Besides being an ingenious (and fun) way of encouraging under-represented students’ interest and participation in STEM and providing them with better access to higher-education, The Think Tank is a wonderful model for organizations of its kind—namely, those seeking to increase diversity in academia and American universities.

Cortney McInerney is a second-year in the College double majoring in English and political science.

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