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Q & A with Shirley Malcom


Children seem to take effortlessly to the gadgets of modern life. But getting them curious about what’s inside is a different story.

That’s where Shirley Malcom comes in. As head of the Education and Human Resources program at AAAS, her job is to encourage today’s grade-schoolers to become tomorrow’s groundbreaking researchers. The program produces a variety of multimedia offerings to help grab students’ attention, from the award-winning Science Update radio shows to the free lessons available through Science NetLinks. It also works to see that the country’s diversity is reflected in its laboratories and lecture halls.

Malcom grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement. After attending the University of Washington, UCLA, and Penn State, she settled in Washington in the mid-1970s and found a job at AAAS examining how efforts to recruit African-American and Latino students to the sciences were working. She’s been with AAAS for most of the last four decades. 

Q: We’re in an age when advances in electronics mean kids are much more exposed to technology. Are you seeing more interest in the sciences as a result of that?

Malcom: I think that there is interest in the technology, but there’s also a failure to connect the technology people use with the science that informed it and led to its invention. That leads me to point to one of the programs we have, the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors. It’s identifying people who are inventors and focusing on things they have created that often connect to this technology or invent things that make a difference in people’s lives.

Among the invention ambassadors, for example, is Steve Sasson, who invented the digital camera. Or Eric Fossum, who’s one of the people who invented CMOS, which allows digital photography from your cell phone. It’s a matter of trying to make visible that which is invisible, and that’s the connection between the kind of technology that people take for granted on the one hand, and the science and technology and innovation that’s underneath that, which they do not see.

We know there are lots of opportunities to use technology to support learning, to use it to support the kind of learning and the kind of inquiry we think is more effective. We have a program called Active Explorer that allows you to use smart phones as data collecting tool around real problems … [students] collect data, and try to make sense of their data and present their data. There are lots of challenges out there, and we also have lots of resources.

Q: What are teachers and school districts up against when it comes to getting kids interested and keeping them interested in science, and what is AAAS doing to help them?

Malcom: Science is inherently interesting. You have to work hard to make it dull. But some people are successful. (Laughs). You have to work from kids’ interests out. They’re often interested in the latest things that are happening, the things that people are all talking about. Everybody kind of got into New Horizons, the idea of something out at Pluto. We have a radio program, Science Update, which is very much a news program that focuses on what’s happening now and what research is being done.

The idea of helping students see that science is not just something remote and far away and at a distance, but that it is part of their lives – we try to show that is the case. We have other things that we do, because it’s not always easy to do when you have large numbers of kids … We have a program where we work with retired scientists and engineers. They’re trained and they go into the classrooms and they’re available to work with teachers. Right now it’s largely in this area [Washington], but we’re talking about how we push it out and make that a lot bigger.

One of the things that teachers are up against when it comes to science instruction has been the fact that we have been living with No Child Left Behind, and science has not been assessed. Math and English Arts are, and therefore, that’s what people have emphasized in schooling. What is assessed will be taught. In those kinds of cases, you have to be attentive to what is going on at the policy level, at the federal level, because that is pushing into the states and localities and influencing what people spend their time on.

Q: There’s a big effort to improve diversity in the STEM fields, and obviously that has to start with students. For minority communities, or women and girls, where do you see the bottleneck? Where do the numbers thin out, and how to you address that?

Malcom: It’s hard to say. Even if the numbers are still there, the pathways aren’t that smooth.  I don’t know if you saw that recent article that was in PLOS about the fact that girls will get to college, take their first calculus course, and they’re more likely not to take the next course than boys are, even if they have as good or better grades. A lot of that has to do with confidence -- that there’s not a reinforcement of the fact that they may be good at that … that’s a bottleneck that has very little to do with performance and a lot to do with attitude and confidence.

 With regard to minority students, they’re not even seen as the raw material to go into science and engineering, so they’re not often given the rigorous coursework. It’s not even available in many of these schools. It is having under-resourced schools. It is having lower expectations of what you’re likely to be able to achieve. It is not necessarily aspiring to the next level of education because you haven’t been encouraged, or because you think there are problems with having to finance what you may want to do. It’s holistic, it’s across the board, it’s systemic. …  

Do you know when we had the highest percentage of women in computer science? 1985. It’s been downhill ever since. I think this notion of ‘How can we do so poorly,’ there are myriad answers to that. But it has a lot to do with how the problems are framed, how the fields are sold, as in marketed – and whether or not people are actively marketing these as things that can give women the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

Q: You taught high school biology early in your career. What did you bring to this job from that experience?

Malcom: I could not do what I do had I not had that experience. I think it’s hard for people to really understand the kind of issues you really need to address with K-12 unless you’ve been in that environment.  It relates to the preparation provided to K-12 STEM teachers, where are they likely to get that, what are the nature of the experiences you have to have to be successful as a high-school teacher.

It’s about coming to understand what that population is like that you’re teaching. In my case, which was 16-year-old 17-year-olds, how do they learn what they are interested in? What education are you going to provide them within the sciences that has meaning to them? It isn’t just about memorizing – that isn’t going to work. It needs to inspire them to see that this is a story – the story of life – and that understanding a lot of these things is very empowering. …

Coming to a job like this, you have experience in teaching, you have experience in research. You don’t necessarily have to have experience in policy. In my case, there weren’t programs necessarily to help that. You have to be mentored to it, and you have to live in this kind of environment and pick it up in an apprentice kind of form.

Q:  What would you consider a career high point so far? What gives you the most pleasure, the most pride?

Malcom: There have been a lot of things we have been able to accomplish, both domestically and internationally. Some of the things that have had the most impact were the incorporation of issues related to persons with disabilities in the sciences and engineering –  that led the whole science and engineering community. We were the first organization to make the meetings accessible, to push on this as an issue that the scientific community needs to embrace. I was not the person who initiated that. I just basically came in after that had already started and saw how important that was to really being able to underscore the diversity and inclusion concerns. I do think that was an important one.

The project on diversity and the law –  helping to try to clarify where the space was legally where universities could identify programs that could be effective in diversifying their student population or faculty, while not running afoul of the legal challenges. There’s been a lot of things AAAS has led that I think have made a difference in the strength of the science community now.

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