STEM with No Single Right Answer

Six weeks into the Common Core and freshman year, I have learned how to describe crystal structures, write epsilon-delta proofs, and, in general, to arrive at correct answers. The Core is an overview of the STEM disciplines at Mudd— math, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering — and it helps Mudders seek solutions across disciplines. Yet — surprisingly — through Core, I am also learning to sit with questions without answers.

How can science be used to make a more equitable, loving world? Can science intervene into racist, classist, colonialist, and heteropatriarchal structures? Although I was worried that a STEM school would not have space for these conversations, my professors and classmates here have continued to ask these questions with me.

I love, for instance, talking to professors about their ethical responsibilities as scientists. After Professor John Townsend in Special Relativity ended his lecture with a discussion on the atomic bomb, he recalled how he once helped design a verifiable treaty between the Soviet Union and the USA that regulated sea-launch cruise missiles that could potentially carry atomic bombs. “It was not like doing science the way we normally do science,” he recalled. “It was people who think like scientists trying to deal with a challenging political problem, to get ourselves more information. We took on the project because it had the benefit of making the world safer, without at the same time potentially going the other direction.” It made me wonder: what new existential threats are emerging in science today?

On the same day, I drew a connection between mathematics and queer theory. While explaining the difference between series and sequences, Professor Michael Orrison in my Proof-Based Calculus course paused to declare, “Ambiguity is a source of power. Some people fall in love with math because it is ‘objective’ with one answer, but I think math can be cool because of the ambiguities.” His comment resonated with papers I read for my cross-registered Feminist and Queer Science course at Scripps College, where possibilities are imagined from the ambiguous in-between, the destabilizing of boundaries. Can mathematics and queer theory illuminate each other? How has mathematics benefitted or harmed different groups of people?

Frankly, I never thought a STEM school could be so human, critical, and reflective. In retrospect, though, I can see that Mudd was built on those values — the Harvey Mudd mission statement “seeks to educate engineers, scientists, and mathematicians” with “a clear understanding of the impact of their work on society.” I couldn’t be more thankful for that.