A $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation will put equity and inclusion into action — and the classroom — for Western’s programs in science, technology, engineering and math.
The NSF grant will fund the Building Educational Theory Through Enacting Reforms (BETTER) in STEM study, which will take place over the next five years to embed the use of inclusive, research-based instructional strategies into undergraduate STEM courses and departments.
“The goal is, ultimately, to benefit our students in STEM fields and especially our first-generation, minoritized students in STEM because a lot of the research has shown that equitable, inclusive, student-centered strategies benefit those students the most,” says Dan Hanley, Director of STEM Education Research and Evaluation for Western’s Science, Math and Technology Education department, and a project leader on the grant.
“It’s really imperative at Western that we have STEM graduates that mirror our populations in our region and the US,” Hanley says. “A big part of this is acknowledging the different identities and experiences that they bring to the classroom, to Western, to the workforce, and acknowledging those as assets.”
The fact that the STEM workforce doesn’t currently look like the broader population is a strong sign that the system as it exists now isn’t working, says SMATE Director Emily Borda, noting that higher education is often one of the pinch points in the pipeline to STEM careers where people can find themselves excluded. Changing that starts with changing mindsets, focusing on what students bring to the classroom rather than on areas where they may be lacking, and building a more welcoming environment that helps to build a sense of belonging in STEM.
“I’d argue a big part of this is transforming ourselves so that students don’t have to change their identities to see themselves in STEM,” Borda says. “We need to step back and think about how we approach science education in a much more aggressively inclusive way so we can get beyond the implicit biases we all have and start to really think about what it looks like to be truly inclusive.”
Working toward inclusivity doesn’t just benefit students; it benefits STEM fields as a whole.
“Science needs diversity in order to thrive. Without a diversity of ideas, you’re not going to get the advances in science and any other fields that you would normally have,” Borda says. “The way that we think about and look at science stems from our perspectives and identities; it’s not objective. So if there’s a dominant demographic group doing science, which there is right now, then the way that science is conducted and even the way we think about science is influenced by that group. Making efforts to include people from underrepresented group helps advance science and helps advance the way we think about science.”
But how do you get there from here? If STEM programs where all students regardless of race, gender or background feel included, supported and able to succeed is the destination, then the BETTER in STEM study will fill in the points along the map to get there by creating and testing an instructional framework that STEM faculty and departments can use to define and adopt inclusive, student-centered STEM teaching and learning.
Fortunately, the researchers heading up the grant are not starting from scratch. This grant study builds off of earlier equity work done for many years on campus, including the NSF-funded Change at the Core project that initiated work with faculty on student-centered teaching and learning, the Advancing Excellence and Equity in Science project that broadened the study of equitable, inclusive strategies to improve success in courses for minorities, and the NSF-funded North Cascades and Olympic Science Partnership, which paired regional colleges and school districts to reform science education in grades 3-10 and improve science teacher preparation and diversity.
“I’m excited to take this next step,” Borda says. “We’ve gotten far enough to develop leaders in faculty development efforts that we can take this next step to really institutionalize this process of change and transformation we’re all engaged in.”
To develop and test its model for equity in STEM, the study at Western will take place within eight departments throughout the College of Science and Engineering and will be focused on four strategies, including creating and testing its instructional framework, developing a program for faculty to learn about the framework and improve classroom implementation, providing faculty with opportunities for peer feedback, and working with departments to develop procedures to support using the framework to improve teaching and learning.
“They are partners in this work with us, in developing, designing and refining these change strategies and materials,” Hanley said of faculty and department leadership.
The five-year grant will allow for two cohorts from those eight departments, with the first involved for two years to test and refine the processes for change, and the second to repeat those efforts and refine further so that materials are well-developed and thoughtfully considered before disseminating to other institutions throughout the nation.
Western has partnered with Whatcom Community College and University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, which is a large, predominantly Hispanic-serving institution, to broaden the study’s perspective on what inclusion and equity mean in STEM and ensure the research findings are applicable throughout the higher education landscape.
“This study has the potential to significantly impact how STEM departments at two- and four-year institutions across the country encourage and support faculty members’ use of inclusive, research-based instructional strategies in their courses,” Hanley says. “This framework and professional development program could have applications for any department, any discipline at Western, or other institutions, because it really is anchored around what we know is effective for students in teaching and learning. And what is effective in STEM is effective in teaching students in any discipline.”
While equitable, inclusive and actively student-centered practices in the classroom will benefit all students, research shows they are particularly impactful for minority, first-generation and low-income students, leading to better success in courses, a stronger sense of belonging in STEM, and higher retention and graduation rates from STEM programs, Hanley says.
“I hope students see this and hear it and feel it in the classroom, and that what it results in for students is that they become more engaged in their learning, and that their experiences and identities are valued in the classroom — that they are engaged with their peers as assets and resources for each other’s learning,” he says. “I hope this ends up with them feeling like they belong in class and are valued in class and at Western.”