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College of Science faculty break down barriers in STEM education through Inclusive Excellence grant

By Erica Martin

Teaching faculty in the College of Science working to increase access, equity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and mathematics can create change by collaborating with a supportive community through Inclusive Excellence at Oregon State University.

IE@OSU was made possible by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Inclusive Excellence Initiative. Since the program’s 2018 launch, 81 fellows from Oregon State and surrounding community colleges have participated in the HHMI initiative, which aims to change the way institutions have historically engaged students in science to be more inclusive of a diverse array of people. Recipients like OSU’s College of Science received $1 million in grant support over five years to explore how to make cultural changes in STEM education.

Faculty members from the College of Science, together with the STEM Research Center were awarded the grant — the only recipient in Oregon. Their goal was to provide learning opportunities to faculty and staff in STEM — at Oregon State, Linn Benton Community College and Lane Community College — to make inclusivity intrinsic to STEM pedagogies across the region. Facilitators from the College and principal investigators from the research center have worked together to create an impactful experience for participants.

The program offers fellows a year-long academy in which they evaluate their spheres of influence. The aim is to identify any potential barriers to student success and outline opportunities to remove them. Fellows are broken into cohorts of three to four to build action plans relevant to their engagement with students.

IE@OSU facilitators lead a conversation in front of several round tables full of fellows.

Mary Beisiegel, Devon Quick and Lori Kayes facilitate a discussion during an IE@OSU meeting in May, 2023.

“I think what IE has done is given a space for and a framework for faculty to really work through this process in a way that’s meaningful to them – through an approach that allows them to have a product at the end they can actually use,” said Kameron Kadooka, Director for Equity, Access and Inclusion at the College of Science.

The action plans generated by fellows vary across disciplines. Some instituted student surveys designed to create a more holistic understanding of their students; one facilitated transportation to a women-in-physics conference; some made changes to lecture content to increase gender-affirming language; and others made adjustments to include social impacts in biology curriculum in an effort to produce more well-rounded healthcare workers.

Summaries of faculty and staff action plans shared on the Inclusive Excellence website provide a deeper look at how course materials and student interactions were adapted to become more inclusive.

The need for the inclusive excellence initiative

Data from Oregon State shows the gap in graduation rate for underrepresented minorities and Pell-eligible students ranges from 6 to 18% across various science disciplines, indicating science is not yet retaining underrepresented minority students at the same rate they’re retaining students from majority groups.

That trend in STEM is not exclusive to Oregon State. According to a 2019 study from the National Science Foundation, Black or African American workers made up only 9% of STEM workers in the United States. Hispanic or Latinx workers made up 14%. Women still represented less than a quarter of the working population in physical science, engineering and computer science. Anyone with an intersectional identity had increasingly lower representation.

While there may be different barriers to access for members of marginalized groups on individual levels, one thing the IE@OSU program seeks to address is increasing a sense of belonging for all students – which IE@OSU leadership theorizes may be a key to students’ decisions to persist in their STEM education.

Between the time students enter and the time students graduate, they make one decision over and over: whether to persist or not.

“Between the time students enter and the time students graduate, they make one decision over and over: whether to persist or not,” shared Lou Wojcinski, instructor in the chemistry department and a fellow from the 2020-21 cohort. “And we have to be deliberate about building environments where students can say yes to persisting. It’s going to get difficult — things are going to go badly at some point—and you have to make the decision to continue or not. And we have to build these spaces where our students make the decision to persist.”

Changing the tides

“Our intentional goal at the beginning was to take what we know to be best practices in STEM education and to partner them with inclusive excellence,” said Lori Kayes, associate department head and senior instructor II in the Department of Integrative Biology and IE@OSU project leader.

Teaching faculty don’t have to figure that out in a vacuum, she said. With science educators guiding other educators in STEM, it creates attainable goals for integrating access and inclusivity into the intensive instructional objectives already in place.

Kadooka said IE@OSU has done a lot for “proof of concept” at Oregon State. Fellows who have successfully integrated changes to boost inclusivity and access in STEM have proven that while it takes time and effort to overhaul course materials and alter teaching mechanisms, it is possible, even along with regular research and teaching responsibilities.

Mary Beisiegel, professor in the department of mathematics and mathematics education researcher said this kind of development is what teachers need at any level — K-12 or post-secondary. “This is 50-60 hours in a year focusing on content, in community with people, while incorporating known best practices in teaching. I think that really makes IE@OSU stand out.”

Mary Beisiegel looks over Rachel Palmer's notes during an IE@OSU meeting.

IE@OSU facilitator Mary Beisiegel looks over fellow, Rachel Palmer's notes during a meeting with the 2023 cohort.

To galvanize this community of STEM educators, active fellows are invited to a showcase called Faculty, Food and Fun every spring to share their action plans with campus colleagues and former fellows. Here, faculty and staff might find inspiration for inclusive action in their own spheres of influence. This is one of the ways inclusive excellence propagates out from the fellows in the academy to potentially impact thousands of students.

Propagating access to STEM

IE@OSU is an integral piece of the diversity, equity and access ecosystem at the College of Science and within the university. In 2021, The College of Science published its Diversity Action Plan, outlining the ways it will prioritize and advance inclusive excellence in its classrooms, labs, research and beyond.

“The Inclusive Excellence program at OSU has done fantastic work for the College and for the institution. Many College of Science folks have invested a lot of effort and heart into this — and it has impacted folks much beyond the College. At the institutional level and at the student level, it is pushing the needle forward in those spaces,” said Kadooka.

IE@OSU continues moving forward. The program has reached the end of the five-year grant and was recently granted a two-year extension.

Martin Storksdieck, director of the STEM Research Center and IE@OSU project director said researchers in the STEM Research Center intend to use the extension to take a more holistic view of all the fellows at the end of the project. They hope to evaluate the trajectory people are on in making change for themselves and within their spheres of practice after IE@OSU. In this way, researchers aim to measure the impact of the project on students and STEM pedagogy.

For other equity, access and inclusion education available to faculty and staff, see The Center for Teaching and Learning and The Office of Institutional Diversity.