Mind the (Vote) Gap: Can We Get More STEM Students to the Polls?
This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
By the numbers, American college students who major in STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and math—aren't big on voting. In fact, recent research suggests they're the least likely group of students to head to the ballot box, even as American political leaders cast doubt on the very kinds of expertise those students are developing on campus.
Worried educators say it's time for a rethink of STEM education at the college level. Armed with success stories and model courses, educators are pushing for colleagues to add relevance to STEM education—and instill a sense of civic duty—by bringing the outside world in.
"It's a matter of what's in the curriculum, how faculty spend their time. There are opportunities to weave [policy] within the curriculum," said Nancy L. Thomas, director of Tufts University's Institute for Democracy & Higher Education.
The most recent student voting numbers come from the 2018 mid-term election, when a national Democratic wave brought voters to the polls. Just over a third of STEM college students surveyed said they voted, the lowest percentage of six subject areas, according to a report from the institute at Tufts. Students in the education, social sciences, and humanities fields had the highest voting rates at 47%, 41%, and 39%, respectively.
Students across the board were much less engaged in the mid-year election of 2014, when just 28% of education students surveyed said they voted. STEM students again stood at the rear, with just 16% voting.
(The report analyzed whether more than 10 million college students at 1,031 U.S. institutions voted in 2014 and 2018. At the request of this magazine, the institute at Tufts removed non-U.S. resident students—who can't vote—from the findings to see if the results changed. Voting rates among STEM students remained among the lowest.)
Why aren't STEM students engaged in politics? "I have no reason to think that science students don't care about public policy issues," Tufts University's Thomas said. Instead, she believes that colleges fail to inspire STEM students to think beyond lectures and homework.
Enter the SENCER project—Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities. Since 2001, the project has taught thousands of educators and students how to connect science and citizenship.
The roots of the project go back to 1990, when Rutgers University microbiologist Monica Devanas was assigned to teach a general-education class called "Biomedical Issues of AIDS." She decided to expand the curriculum to encompass insights about a wide range of societal issues. Guest speakers from the community, including a man with a grim diagnosis, talked about the disease and its spread. And Devanas's colleagues in a wide variety of disciplines offered course sections about AIDS and its role in areas such as literature, prisons and law.
"I always tried to make a connection, hoping to create scientifically engaged citizens by explaining the science to them in ways that they could understand."
When she first taught the class, 450 students signed up instead of the expected 100. Devanas, who'd only ever taught a few dozen students with a blackboard, suddenly had to figure out how to teach hundreds at once with the standard technology of the time: an overhead projector.
Devanas, who taught the hugely popular class for the next 18 years, said the course worked because it linked the AIDS epidemic, a hot topic at the time, to the outer world beyond immune cells and test tubes. "You really need to make it very personal and relevant. When you talk about treatment for AIDS or the cost of drugs: Who pays for this?" she said. "I always tried to make a connection, hoping to create scientifically engaged citizens by explaining the science to them in ways that they could understand."
How can other educators learn to create compelling courses? The SENCER website offers dozens of model classes for college and K–12 educators, all with the aim of making STEM classes relevant. An engineering course, for example, could expand a discussion about the nuts and bolts of automated vehicles into a conversation about whether the cars are a good idea in the first place, said Eliza J. Reilly, executive director of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, where SENCER is based.
SENCER, which is government-funded, holds regular conferences and has conducted research that supports the effectiveness of its programs. "This is an educational and intellectual project rather than a get-out-the-vote project. It's not intended to create activists. Instead, it's intended to help students understand that they have power as citizens," Reilly said.
What about long-term change? Will inspiring college students to engage with politics turn them into lifetime voters? Reilly said she's not aware of any research into whether STEM students continue to vote at lower levels after they graduate. That means there's no way to know if limited civic engagement in college translates to lifelong apathy. We also don't know if lower voting rates in college may help explain why few people with STEM backgrounds run for higher office.
There's another big unknown: If more people with STEM degrees vote, will they actually support fact-based policies and candidates who listen to science? The answer is not as obvious as it may appear. At Rutgers, professor Devanas pointed to the research of Yale University law/psychology professor Dan Kahan, who found that the most scientifically literate people in the U.S. also happen to be among those most polarized over climate change. In other words, a scientific mind may not necessarily translate to a pro-science vote.
Regardless of the ultimate choices that STEM students make at the ballot box, advocates will keep encouraging educators to connect science to the world beyond the classroom. As Tufts University's Thomas explained, "it just takes a lot of creativity and will."
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”