How hard should a STEM education advocate push? Knowing when to back off isn’t easy.

When I gave the FSU Physics Department’s colloquium talk on October 6, I probably became the only speaker ever to end a talk in the department by quoting a prayer.  My last power point slide quoted Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I shared with my colleagues as I showed that prayer on the screen that I’ve never really had a problem with the courage part, and that I seem to be doing better with the serenity piece as I age.  But the wisdom thing?  Sometimes I despair that I’m not making any progress on that at all.

I write this at the end of a two-week period in which I’ve pushed an unusually large number of people in positions of authority particularly hard – and perhaps too hard in several or all of those cases.  There is no personal peril in this:  I am a tenured full professor who is otherwise at the bottom of the university food chain.  I have no personal reason to try to seek higher office.

But I’d like to accomplish something occasionally.  And there is the rub.

In Florida’s K-12 schools and at my own university, the status quo is clearly inadequate.  Many thousands of students are being denied some of the best career opportunities our society has to offer because we don’t provide the educational resources these students need to access them.  In thousands of other cases, students are denied these opportunities because we allow them (with their parents’ approval) to make decisions at early ages – like 14 and 15 years old – that lock them out.  My own university enables such choices because it admits students who have, say, taken no math course in high school above Algebra 2, or students who haven’t taken a full complement of high school science courses, which includes chemistry and physics.

Of course, just thinking about that gets me fired up.  And I still struggle with finding the wisdom required to have a constructive conversation with someone in person, by e-mail or via social media about how they are still just not doing well enough to provide their students with the best opportunities.  What makes those conversations particularly ticklish is that the people with whom I have them are generally convinced that they are making things better.  Here I am, just past my 56th birthday, wondering whether I’m getting any better at all at having those conversations, and whether I ever will.

So to all of you who are willing to talk with me, thank you for your patience.  I promise to keep seeking the wisdom that Niebuhr was talking about.

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