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Striving for inclusive excellence in STEM education

For over two years, a select group of educators at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) from the natural sciences have been meeting regularly to participate in professional development studios to help their colleagues redesign course materials in an effort to enhance the academic success of underrepresented and non-traditional student populations.

Called “catalysts,” these educators — both tenure and non-tenure-track — are part of a pilot program consisting of 57 schools across the country funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Inclusive Excellence (IE) Initiative. Goals of the five-year project include a trial redesign of undergraduate courses and requirements in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as building faculty collaboration via course development and resource-sharing to enable student success.

UIC’s HHMI IE is a collaboration between the Office of Diversity, the biology, chemistry and physics departments within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Learning Sciences Research Institute. Including both catalysts and investigators, a total of 33 educators are involved. The initiative aims to help erase the systemic and organizational barriers that contribute to the attrition of a third of undergraduates who come to UIC to major in a STEM field. Through this work, the stakeholders hope to provide a framework for systemic change towards inclusivity and success in the student body.

Corrinne Mills, assistant professor of physics who holds a joint appointment with Fermilab, sees three broad types of challenges facing her students: workload, preparation and culture in the classroom.

“Classes, even introductory ones, have a substantial workload,” she said. “Preparation means whether a student has the necessary math or physics background for a particular course. And if the classroom culture is hostile or unwelcoming, it can drive people out — particularly when it is exacerbating problems in the first two categories.”

Inherent institutionalized bias can contribute to the unwelcoming classroom culture observed by Mills. The HHMI IE initiative helps instructors recognize even the smallest factors can work against inclusivity. Rita Hatfield, a senior lecturer in chemistry and the coordinator of the Summer Enrichment Chemistry Workshop for incoming freshmen, mentioned the importance of universality in language in both the syllabi and lectures.

“[In HHMI IE professional development studios] we learned about the importance of language, like how the use of American slang might confuse someone from another country who might not know what it means,” Hatfield said. “The use of positive language helps. We put language in the syllabus to say we know everyone starts off at the same spot; that you’re all here and you don’t have to be great but you all have the ability to be successful.”

Fostering a sense of belonging and a strong student-teacher relationship are equally important, said Susan McCutcheon, clinical assistant professor of biological sciences and herself a first-generation college graduate. McCutcheon said that she starts every semester with an introduction of her background and outside interests. Humanizing herself in such a way has helped her students feel comfortable to start conversations, and then to talk about something they don’t understand in class.

Alexander Shingleton, associate professor of biological sciences, shares this strategy. “Ultimately, my goal is for students to see me as less of a remote figure standing at the front of a huge auditorium, and more of a guide to their exploration of biology,” he said.

“Just indicating to the students that we are there to help them learn doesn’t do enough to give them a sense of belonging in the course,” McCutcheon added. “We need to make them understand that we have had similar difficulties and struggles, and that they too can overcome these obstacles.”

Redefining the student-teacher dynamic to encourage a student’s sense of belonging is just one of the ways the HHMI IE Initiative has been showing promise. Positive outcomes are being generated throughout, even from the most unique sources. The pandemic has been a colossal challenge for students and educators alike. Asked if the move to all-remote learning has encumbered the HHMI IE Initiative objectives, Justin Mohr, associate professor of chemistry, pointed to some unintended benefits.

“The pandemic has forced technology into the forefront,” Mohr said. “Students who might not have attended labs, or been able to pay for lab fees and kits, are able to embrace digital technologies like computer modeling programs that are available through websites and smartphone apps. They can pick up their cell phone and manipulate a model within an app. It’s a great substitute for physical models and we’re trying to figure out the best way to incorporate that kind of technology into our curriculum.”

Many students, especially non-traditional ones, have difficulties with the costs associated with higher education. The Biology Department has helped by purchasing lab kits for 100-level courses during the pandemic, and catalysts have responded to the challenge of expenses in admirable ways.

“Science textbooks are hugely expensive,” said Rick DeJonghe, clinical assistant professor of physics. Realizing that his students frequently face financial challenges at home, he and his colleagues tried to save the students costs by writing the textbooks for UIC students. DeJonghe, himself, wrote the textbook for Physics 131: Introductory Physics for Life Sciences. Catalyst Mary Ashley, a professor of biological sciences, has also written a textbook, for BIOS 230: Evolution and Ecology.

“Every student has their own giant individual package of things that probably involves work and family and money and all sorts of stuff and a lot of times you can’t get to the bottom of all of it,” DeJonghe said. “We’re finding ways to give them resources to help them succeed.”

In addition to the HHMI IE Initiative, a number of programs help UIC maintain its status as one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse universities in the country focused on student success. The School of Public Health houses the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the Office of the Provost for Diversity runs STRategies for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (STRIDE), a network that brings together grant-based and institutional pipeline programs with academic support, student life, and cultural programs and centers. Several other campus departments are collaborating on another HHMI grant, the Driving Change Initiative, focusing on lasting cultural change so that students from all backgrounds can excel and graduate well prepared to pursue advanced degrees in STEM fields.