Professor Alice Pawley

Asking Questions We Walk: Highlights from the Festival of Learning Keynote

Sophia Fang MIT '22

Alice Pawley, Associate Professor of the School of Engineering Education from Purdue University, began this year’s Festival of Learning keynote with a question: what is Purdue, or more generally, any university, doing to reduce climate emissions by 50% in 10 years?

Many of us may have asked ourselves and others similar questions: What do we do? What can we do? Pawley made the claim that a major barrier to action is that people don’t know where to start, realize they are doing almost nothing, and panic as they do so. Furthermore, Pawley referred to scholar George Lakoff’s theory that people frequently fail to act in their own interest. Even when progressives show scientific evidence, political actors don’t seem to mobilize in response.

What can we do then? Pawley made it simple: keep asking questions.

One of the most interesting questions Pawley asked in reference to global issues such as the climate crisis and the integration of women and people of color in STEM areas was: “How much data do administrators need to see before they do something big and systematic about it?”

According to George Lakoff, “it’s not about the data.” Pawley argued that educators keep collecting more data while failing to address what has already been discovered. I thought this was an interesting point because although a large dataset does help develop more precise trends, timely action based on that data is equally and perhaps even more necessary.

Pawley then threw out another stimulating set of questions concerning STEM education as a whole: “How does one ask empirical questions about scientific research and education? Who should be educated? What should they know?”

We cannot solely rely on empirical field trials to answer these questions which are at the “heart of democracy” because education is a “moral and political crisis” and the issue is that “many academics have dropped the infrastructure to talk about moral obligation and the political nature of the work they do,” due to their reliance on the expertise of others. To put it plainly, STEM educators often lack the capability to address these questions within the necessary moral and political context.

Another interesting point Pawley made was the need for studying institutions through their ruling relations as proposed by scholar Dorothy Smith. At Purdue, Pawley had attempted to reorganize the engineering curriculum around the climate crisis. However, the restructured curriculum was not approved, and prompted her to ask questions such as “who are the players” and “who keeps discussions from climate crisis happening”? She said that we need to investigate how ruling relations work out in order to connect the macro-crisis to the micro-experience of individuals – whether that crisis is climate, gender, race, or class.

Finally, Pawley offered a seemingly simple but extremely crucial Spanish phrase, which roughly translates as “[By] asking questions, we walk.” In essence, this means that we should keep asking questions in order to progress. The turning point towards eventual answers is whether or not we, and more specifically, STEM educators, are willing to take on big risky conversations regarding STEM inequity and the climate crisis. Such conversations would then reveal the answers to the last set of questions presented:

“Who are we as STEM professionals? Who do we want to be?”

To close, Pawley asked one last loaded question, “Will we continue advancing the power of ruling relations in hopes that we may join them or are we going to work to take care of these issues, realizing that the education system has been built in a way to favor the ruling relationship?”

True to her word, Pawley did indeed ask many thought-provoking questions as she walked us through these issues.


Sophia Fang  Sophia Fang '22 is a second year MIT undergraduate


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