Politically charged science issues like climate change and COVID-19 motivate STEM students to get involved in the political process

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STEM students voted at the lowest records in the 2012 and 2016 national elections compared to other majors, according to the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

By Nicole Nguyen

With COVID-19 surging again in the U.S. and the impacts of climate change intensifying, the relevancy of science in politics and public policy is perhaps as important as it’s ever been.  

The urgency around these issues has led to scientists and other professional interest groups to get involved in the political process. For example, Scientific American, an American science magazine, broke 175 years of tradition in 2020 by endorsing a presidential candidate.  

Citing then-President Donald Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, rollback of environmental regulations and rhetoric concerning public science agencies, the magazine endorsed Joe Biden for president.  

“We do not do this lightly,” Scientific American editors said.  

But the importance of voices from scientists and science students in the political process hasn’t been fully realized.  

The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University found that college students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) majors had the lowest voting rates in the 2012 and 2016 national elections compared to their non-STEM peers. 

Students who join STEM fields may not be politically and civically inclined in the first place, a potential reason for disparities in voting rates among majors, the researchers said.  

Already politically engaged students are more likely to select relevant fields, like political science or sociology, while less civically engaged students may prefer fields in STEM. 

Hooper-Bui, a coastal environment professor at Louisiana State University, said that politics can be an energy-draining activity, and it can be difficult to know where to get started when it comes to civic education. 

Bui also emphasized that much of STEM students’ coursework doesn’t revolve around political issues like coursework in the humanities does.  

“STEM students already have so much on their plate,” Hooper said. “I’m not trying to discredit humanities majors, but it’s easier for humanities majors to become involved since their coursework often relies on their knowledge and interaction with current events and politics. With STEM students, this isn’t a part of their coursework. Adding on this extra task is just adding more for them to deal with.” 

LSU environmental engineering student Eva Counts believes the low voting turnout rates may be caused by student apathy towards politics. 

“I think STEM students have adopted a very ‘oh but I’m already overwhelmed by my hard STEM courses. I’m too busy to learn about politics. I only need to learn topics relevant to my career’ attitude,” she said. 

Counts spent time as poll worker for the 2020 election and participated in civic student organizations in high school. She believes STEM educators could integrate other disciplines into the coursework to remedy low voter turnout rates among students.  

“I know for environmental engineering we have to take an environmental ethics class,” Counts said. “I think including some policy or political classes in the STEM curriculum would work. Maybe combining two STEM courses into one course to make room for something humanities related. 

“There would be some potential pushback from students and educators, but this is something that needs to happen. Everyone should be aiming for a well-rounded degree. We shouldn’t just limit ourselves to one thing.” 

LSU mechanical engineering student Julius Pallotta recently became more involved in politics.  

Pallotta once felt politics were not that important or relevant to his interests, but now feels it’s his responsibility as a citizen, regardless of his college major, to be informed. 

“I am not very educated on some of these matters, but I feel inclined to vote for policies relevant to issues like climate change. I would rather be safe than sorry,” Pallotta said. 

Pallotta has observed civic engagement on both sides of the spectrum. Some STEM students are highly engaged while others, according to Pallotta, try to steer clear of politics and controversial topics altogether.  

“STEM and politics is a dangerous game to play, especially when we begin to politicize climate change, but there needs to be a balance between the two,” he said. “I don’t think we can live in a world where they are separate from each other.”

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