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 fields. Some students—women, for example—were not moving forward in these areas of study at the same rate as their male peers after completing introductory classes. While women have made gains in some fields, they remain significantly underrepresented in the physical sciences, engineering, and computer science, making up only 28 percent of the national STEM workforce, according to National Science Foundation statistics.

McKay says concerns about equity and inclusion in STEM education go beyond gender to race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, and politics. For example, African Americans and Hispanics hold only 9 percent and 7 percent of STEM career positions, respectively.

These statistics have inspired each of the SEISMIC institutions to experiment at various times with ways of ensuring that all students succeed, McKay says. One example, tested with chemistry students at UC Irvine, provides online instructional support for students who think they need it. He points to solutions like this as being flexible and relatively inexpensive to implement at scale.

U-M has also created a personalized communication tool designed to increase equity called ECoach. McKay says it takes data about each student’s background, interests, and goals to create customized feedback, encouragement, and advice. Some of that advice includes how to study, when and where to seek help, how to respond to bad test scores, and how to see struggle as a desirable difficulty on the road to success. It is now used by more than 5,000 students each term at U-M and UC Santa Barbara. ECoach is expected to become a part of SEISMIC’s portfolio of tools, he adds.

“All SEISMIC institutions will allow researchers to access, analyze, and share results,” McKay says, noting the vital role institutional data will play—data that often wasn’t available until fairly recently. “It gives us insight into how our systems work, and we can compare the approaches of different campuses.”

This week marks the first annual meeting of SEISMIC participants, where they’ll spend a few days brainstorming in Ann Arbor, MI, and pitch each other on research and experiment ideas before settling on at least a dozen key projects. Each institution will host at least six SEISMIC project speakers throughout the year, creating continuous intellectual exchanges across the collaboration, McKay says. All 10 institutions will meet in person every summer to accelerate research, build community, and plan the team’s activities.

“Many ideas are already emerging, and some [participants] will suggest projects already underway that they’d like to expand,” McKay says. “We don’t know exactly where it’ll go, but I really honor the commitment SEISMIC institutions have made. There are still quite a few institutions not willing to look at their own data because they’re afraid of what they’ll find out.”

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