U-M Leads 10-University Project to Tackle Equity, Inclusion in STEM

Academic researchers have long studied gender and racial disparities in STEM education, but they have not had widespread success in addressing these challenges.  A University of Michigan professor and colleagues from 10 universities are hoping to change that.

At public research universities like U-M, introductory courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects are the required first steps in the process of earning a STEM degree. These huge lecture classes enroll hundreds of students, which can make them overwhelming in size, and the material can be difficult. If students stumble in these initial classes, research from the Association of American Universities shows they often abandon pursuing a degree or career in a STEM field, especially if they don’t see themselves already represented among today’s STEM professionals.

Tim McKay, a U-M physics, astronomy, and education professor, says part of the problem comes from an attitude established in the first half of the 20th century that the purpose of introductory STEM courses is to decide “right then, in the first weeks of college, who will be a scientist and who won’t. That’s a very bizarre approach, especially compared to the way other disciplines are taught,” he says.

Linguistics, for example. “Nobody takes linguistics before college,” McKay continues. “It’s complicated and a little arcane but the attitude is, we’re going to teach everyone an introduction to linguistics.”

Compare that to introductory STEM classes, he says, in which the idea is to weed out poor performers right away. “Students start out dreaming of a STEM career, thinking maybe they can do this, but after being disappointed with the outcome [of the class], they think maybe not. If we’re ok with a large fraction of students coming away disappointed—that’s a broken system.”

So McKay had an idea: what if he created a large-scale nationwide collaboration, involving hundreds of people from 10 of the country’s largest public research universities sharing data and best practices to systematically tackle reforming the way introductory STEM classes are taught?

That’s the goal of the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses (SEISMIC) project, a new effort led by McKay that focuses on increasing diversity in large, introductory STEM courses. Using $1 million in funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the SEISMIC project aims to change how academia approaches these classes. The Sloan funding covers SEISMIC’s operating costs for three years, McKay says, and the project will seek additional support after that time if necessary. A key goal of the project is to set a new national standard for assessing the quality of introductory STEM courses.

“The problem is a lot bigger than any one university can address,” McKay explains. “I began to feel it was analogous to scientific problems in my past career.” Twenty years ago, he was part of a project to build a 3D map of the universe. “We built the team and launched the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which several hundred people worked on for a decade. I view SEISMIC as the first big step in a nationwide effort to really change the culture.”

SEISMIC’s founding institutions include Michigan State University, Indiana University, Purdue University, University of Minnesota, Arizona State University, University of Pittsburgh, University of California locations in Santa Barbara, Irvine, and Davis. Together, these campuses have more than 350,000 students—roughly 75,000 of whom enroll in introductory STEM courses every year.

McKay says every SEISMIC campus has long struggled with a lack of diversity in STEM … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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