Face to Face 03.26.20

In his work and his life, Armando Arias says he’s been inspired by Cesar Chavez (and also a mentor, famed psychologist Carl Rogers, who was known for “empathetic listening”). “Cesar was an emphathetic listener,” Arias says. “At an early age, I was able to spot injustices in the world, partly because of Cesar. That had a direct impact on me.”

In his new book, Theorizing Cesar Chavez: New Ways of Knowing STEM, Armando Arias combines examples of “everyday science” (things like making tamales) with lessons from famous researchers (think Albert Einstein and Jean Piaget). They’re woven together with the story of Cesar Chavez, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers who led la lucha for Chicano rights in the 1960s. Arias is a professor of social and behavioral sciences at CSU Monterey Bay, and in his book, he urges readers to rearrange their perceptions of science, culture and society into one cohesive idea. He suggests a new approach to preparing youth for careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) that, as Chavez would say, serves all people.

As a founding faculty member at CSUMB, Arias reflects on his role in launching the university’s Service Learning Institute, which provides CSUMB students with opportunities to volunteer and participate in community service projects “I helped co-write [CSUMB’s] vision statement; it’s very powerful and in my opinion, it’s got Cesar written all over it,” he says.

Theorizing Cesar Chavez was released March 21. (It’s available at somosenescrito.weebly.com.) In celebration of Cesar Chavez Day, on March 31, Arias spoke with the Weekly about Chavez, science communication and his term “science friction.”

Weekly: When did your interest in Chavez begin?

Arias: When I was about 9, my uncles in San Diego started the Committee on Chicano Rights. They were concerned with the way police were treating Chicanos. Then about 1,000 Chicanos – including family members – were ousted from homes they owned to build the Coronado Bridge.

From an early age, I began to see things from a social justice perspective. Cesar would stop in every time he came to San Diego to visit my uncles.

So he had a lasting impression on you?

What fascinated me was how people were fascinated by him. My father was very stern, he wasn’t fascinated by anything. Cesar was the first time I ever saw my father fascinated by somebody.

Do you have a background in STEM?

The direct answer is no. However, I was trained in a school of thought called ethnomethodology. Part of what ethnomethodologists do is study the methodologies of scientists. I became very interested in the sociology of science. Throughout my life, I’ve had various opportunities to study scientists. One of them was when I worked at Texas A&M University and they were building the world’s first massive particle accelerator. It was almost a $5 billion project.

This was big-ticket science. The public needed to support it or it was going to fall through. And that’s exactly what happened – they lost public support and closed it down before it got going.

You write that, like Chavez, we should be skeptical of science. What can the public do today to stay well informed?

The public needs scientists to better explain what they’re doing. You can get a $5 billion grant, but if you’re not communicating with the public, you could lose it all. The public are the people I’m concerned about. I want them to be better able to understand what scientists are trying to articulate.

Taking an interdisciplinary approach is one way to do it. People are writing poetry and music about science. After the accelerator in Texas closed down, the same people went to work on the new project in Switzerland. They had the same problem communicating to the local people, so they had a competition. The young particle physicists at the new Large Hadron Collider wrote a rap song and won an award for communicating to the world what the heck they were doing. It’s funny, it’s catchy – and they were singing about particle physics!

Your book repeatedly uses the phrase “science friction.” What is that?

Science friction happens when things aren’t working quite right, yet a minor tweak to the methodology could make a major difference. I used to run classes online for calculus and we hired a guy with a Ph.D. who was bilingual to teach a group of students. He would teach chapter one in Spanish, take a break, then come back and teach it again in English. We measured their scores and found that the students were learning better. This is an example of science friction being solved by a little out-of-the-box thinking.

Why do STEM programs need to think outside of STEM?

In universities, people talk about STEM as though they’re this separate group, “They’re the STEM people.” We’re not thinking in an interdisciplinary fashion. I’ve talked to a lot of CEOs in Silicon Valley and they tell me that engineering corporations need social scientists to supervise their engineers, because engineers are the worst supervisors. So they need social scientists, but they also need them to speak engineering. This is why I tell my students to take classes and learn subjects outside their major – it can make them more able to serve others.

Who do you hope will read this book?

I didn’t think about an audience when I was writing it. There’s a saying, you just can’t leave a good story in, you’ve gotta get it out. That’s how I felt! Now that it’s written, I’d like to aim for administrators of STEM programs.

How can non-minority scientists and STEM teachers become engaged in the effort to engage more racially diverse youngsters in STEM?

The knowledge is going to come from people of color who are in STEM programs now. I think this book can cause a cognitive shift in people’s minds. There’s no type of book like this about Cesar Chavez. It’s not just looking at Chavez, not just at STEM, but how people’s imaginations go to work like his did. This isn’t a history book – in some ways it’s not about Cesar Chavez at all – yet in other ways I’m trying to ground my ideas in real examples from his work and life.

What are some things every scientist, engineer and mathematician could do to focus on the people as Chavez did?

[Laughing] Read my book! If they do, maybe they’ll start to look at their benchwork a little different. Cesar always used to say during the grape strikes, “It’s not about the grapes, it’s about the people.”

For this book, I didn’t try to do a ton of research. I just looked at the issue through the lens of Cesar’s everyday life. I remembered the transformational moments he gave me. This book is part novel, part psychology, part sociology, part philosophy of science.

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