Examining Inclusivity in STEM fields at Beloit

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by Leah Mellett ’18

“If we keep teaching STEM the way that we’ve been doing it for the past ten years, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
–Rachel Bergstrom

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are notorious for being predominantly white and/or male dominated spaces. Beloit College, while aspiring to be an antiracist and inclusive institution, is no exception when it comes to a noticeable lack of diversity and equity within its STEM fields. Although introductory classes are packed full of first-year students from many races and gender identities, the majority of students who progress through STEM majors are predominantly white.

In 2016, a survey entitled “20 Questions” was sent out to the student body, in an attempt to gain understanding of how the feeling of “belonging” at Beloit varied between students with different identities. The results indicated that, compared to white students, students of color were less likely to feel like they belonged on campus. This disparity in a sense of belonging was even greater when comparing New Majority science majors—students who, as defined by the National Science Foundation, have traditionally been underrepresented in STEM— to White science majors.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) offers a competitive grant to 4-year institutions across the nation so that they can implement new programs and systems to increase inclusivity within STEM fields. The goal of the HHMI proposal is to ensure that all students feel a sense of belonging and can succeed within a STEM curriculum.

In response to this call for proposals, a team of faculty and staff— including Sue Swanson, Nicole Truesdell, Katie Johnson, Britt Scharringhausen, Laura Parmentier, Amy Briggs, and Ted Gries— decided that the first step in creating an inclusive and equitable environment at Beloit was to make sure that current faculty recognize their own privilege through professional development and critical analysis of current teaching, research, and hiring practices.

“White people who have [attended similar] institutions know about the (private liberal arts) experience and can do better in interviews since Beloit and [other colleges] are historically white”
–Katie Johnson

There is a noticeable lack of racial diversity amongst faculty in Beloit’s STEM departments. While the implementation of a new hiring practice is ongoing and necessary, current faculty members must first become trained and educated about inclusivity. Aside from broad conversations about social skills within STEM fields, faculty members are discussing how science directly intersects with identity.

“The real question was: where can we, as professors, enact a change?”
–Rachel Bergstrom

Over the past few years, a few classes have been part of a pilot of a daily mindfulness reflection activity that grew out of Rachel Bergstrom and Britt Scharringhausen’s experiences participating in the Mellon Pedagogy series through the Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness. The goal of this reflection is for students to reflect on daily activities and to come away knowing they are valued within the classroom. Questions raised in this exercise include:

  • What does it mean to be a good group member?
  • What is the value of being a good group member?
  • What skills do you bring to your group that will help it succeed?
  • How are you able to contribute to your group today?

While upon first glance these questions might seem cliché or insignificant, they prompt students to reflect on their own self worth and increase their self-awareness. Mental health and well-being varies from day to day for different students, so being able to express when self-care should be prioritized over further investment in classroom participation and activities is crucial. Additionally, these questions encourage students to recognize that they always have something to bring to the table and to contribute to their group’s goal(s).

From this reflection activity, a STEM-specific classroom survey was launched to determine the sense of belonging, success, and caring felt by students within STEM fields. These surveys and focus groups are ongoing, so the goal is to brainstorm changes that can be made based on student responses. One suggestion has been a call for better communication between faculty and students, outside of the classroom, as a lack of inclusivity is an issue that extends beyond classroom walls (and beyond Beloit’s campus too).

If you’d like to be involved in helping reshape the STEM education at Beloit, or if you have any additional questions about the HHMI initiative, you can reach out to Katie Johnson, associate professor of biology, at <johnsonkms@beloit.edu>.