The STEM Dilemma

Todd Wohling / October 11, 2014 at 8:00 AM / Archive

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One of the tangential discussions coming out of Good Morning Orthodoxy that I wanted to have but didn’t fit anywhere was the possibility that we have work to do to get a more diverse set of voices into game development at all levels.  The most direct way to do that is to get more women, PoC, and LGBT folks in to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) majors at the college level.  The question is how.  There are those who would suggest that inclusion is the means to get students into those majors and into STEM related jobs.  It’s been tried, and it has failed catastrophically.

A 2010 study authored by the American Association of University Women gives us all the facts and data we need.  First, I have to disclaim that this piece is going to be largely America-centric; it was where I was educated; it was where I was educated to be an educator; and it is where all the data I could find comes from.  My suspicion is most of the Western world is going to fall in line pretty close to what we see here, but as ever, your mileage may vary.  Inclusion has been imposed by the educational academic elite for roughly 20 years at the time of the study, and indeed, the imposition of equality of outcomes on students paid dividends for girls in high school.  It can be plainly seen that girls in high school are taking more math classes than boys and doing better in them in 2005 than they were in 1990.


Logic would suggest this should result in a large group of women that are better prepared for STEM majors in college.  The data, however, shows differently.  The only STEM fields in which girls outnumber boys in taking Advanced Placement Tests are Environment Science and Biology, according to 2009 data.  The gender gap is most pronounced at the highest end of physics, Electricity and Magnetism, as well as Computer Science.  Scores in APTs also show a reversal of gender gap between boys and girls, with the exception of Computer Science AB, where boys and girls score equally well.


At this point, we begin to see the data showing us the house of cards inclusion has constructed.  In the vacuum in which inclusion is practiced, inclusion works well enough, but the instant students are removed from the vacuum, they are ill-prepared for the hardships that come with a results-based playing field, such as a standardized tests for advanced college placement.

The last data points I want to point out is the gap between incoming Freshmen intending to major in Computer science is pretty severe between males and females in Computer Science, and the gap between men and women earning bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science according to 2007 data.


There’s plainly a gap.  So, what’s the big difference between high school, AP tests, and college?  The AAUW study suggests inclusion, and they’d be correct.  So what do people in academic fantasy land do when their be all and end all theory falls on its face in practice?  Double down by suggesting the solution to the gender gap in STEM in college is to impose inclusion at the college level.  To demonstrate the point, they use the following quote from a 2002 interview:

It is really important to redefine or re-envision [what we mean by computer science] because for so long people thought of computer science as focused on the machine and hacking away at the computer. But computer science is now a discipline that is playing a key role in invention and creation across all sorts of disciplines from biological science to film and animation, and that expansion of the field and how critical it is across all disciplines increasingly makes it more meaningful.

From this quote, they springboard into conclusions about how to solve the problem from the same researchers quoted above.  2 of those conclusions are the following:

Carnegie Mellon changed the admissions policy that gave preference to applicants with a lot of previous programming experience once the university realized that this was not a key to student success. This change sent a more inclusive message about who could be a successful computer science student and helped Carnegie Mellon recruit more women with no change in the quality of the applicant pool.

Offer introductory courses that show the wide variety of computer science applications and a curricular pathway to complete the degree that does not assume years of computer science experience.

To rephrase the second quote, make computer science easier.  There’s no question making computer science curriculum easier will result in a larger number of computer science graduates and naturally, that larger number of graduates will include more women, PoC, and LGBT people.  However, “just being a computer scientist” is insufficient; these new computer science grads need to be able to get jobs, which is, again, where the inclusion house of cards crumbles.  Here are 2 examples of why from private industry.

First is Based Carmack shutting down Social Justice Valley Girl by saying Oculus is having a hard time finding the people that they want (i.e. qualified people) regardless of what they look like.  That pool of people would come almost exclusively from STEM majors in college.

Second, is a study conducted by the US Dept of Homeland Security, the National Cyber Security Alliance, and Raytheon of adults ages 18 to 26. In that study, 64 percent of respondents said they did not have access to classes in high school that build awareness or skills necessary for cyber careers, including computer science.  The conclusion, from Jack Harrington, vice president of cyber security and special missions:

This study shows that despite the fact that more students are generally interested in pursuing related careers, they often lack the needed skills and encouragement that our educators should be providing to grow the talent pipeline.

The AAUW suggests using inclusion to create a large pool of less qualified graduates when at least 2 areas of private industry, VR and Cybersecurity, have come out and said they cannot find qualified people for the jobs they have now.  Further, in the case of Cybersecurity, students weren’t provided the classes or guidance needed to make informed decisions about going into computer science as a major in the first place.  The problem with STEM is not cultural; it is not a problem to be solved with quotas, hand holding, and hug boxes.  The STEM problem is one of curriculum, especially in the case of computer science.  The STEM problem comes from technology and end user needs evolving faster than the bureaucracies writing curriculum standards.

So what’s the answer?  The answer isn’t easy.  We’ve tried homogenizing student populations via inclusion, and that seems to have demonstrably failed, so why not try specializing student populations earlier?  Find those people who love computers, regardless of who and what they are, and cultivate that love through intensive study.  Once students are in the intensive study, then they can explore all the various applications for computers and find the one they like most, whether that is art, programming, modeling and simulation, or security.  It’s by no means a complete answer; it’s one possibility.  It’s also not a catch all for other STEM fields.  The best course of action most likely is to get university presidents, the Secretary of Education, Based Mom, Dept of Homeland Security, and other qualified feminist, PoC, and LGBT scholars into a room and rethink STEM education from the ground up.

As a GG supporter, I’ve been labeled as a lot of pretty nasty things, not the least of which is that I am trying to keep women out of games development.  This simply isn’t true.  I want as much variety of voice and perspective as possible, variety of voice leads to variety of experience, and variety of experience leads to more fun.  That said, I do want that variety of voices to be qualified, and solving the STEM dilemma is the only way I see to do get a larger set of varied, qualified voices in games development.

Todd Wohling

A long time ago on an Intellivision far, far away my gaming journey started with Lock n' Chase, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons The Cloudy Mountain, and Night Stalker. I earned both a BS-Physics and a BS-Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Today I spend most of my time on PC. I left a career of 14 years in aerospace in Colorado, so I could immigrate to Norway.