Supporting Equity in STEM Research and Teaching

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Russell Yost 01/18/2021 January 2021 Perspectives

Tam’ra-Kay (TK) Francis, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemistry, is passionate about creating community. Through ongoing conversations with students of color about their experiences in STEM courses, Francis recognized a need for faculty and staff to become more equity-minded and better understand the importance of creating inclusive labs and classrooms.

Francis is passionate about helping students succeed, and studies pedagogies and other interventions in higher education that support underrepresented students in STEM. Her research examines STEM identity and educational development as part of social and cultural contexts both within disciplines and in transdisciplinary environments. Her efforts engage both faculty and students in the development of equity-based environments. She was also recently named a “rising star” on a list of 1,000 inspiring Black scientists in America.

As protests on racial injustice unfolded in early June, Francis felt it was the moment to take action and further cross-campus conversations. In just a few short weeks, she developed PR2ISM, a tri-campus, interdisciplinary educational development program for UW faculty, administrators, staff, postdocs, and graduate students, designed to “share equity-minded practices for STEM instruction and research activities” with the goal of improving student access and success.

Tam'ra-Kay (TK) Francis, postdoctoral fellow, Department of Chemistry

STEM-focused colleges, departments, schools, institutes and student organizations across the UW promoted the initial PR2ISM series and served as founding organizers and sponsors, coming together under a common purpose: to create team-based learning and action.

Central to PR2ISM's work is the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) core principle on access, student success and high-quality classroom learning — Making Excellence Inclusive — and "equity-mindedness," a framework developed by the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education.

According to the Center for Urban Education, equity mindedness “refers to the perspective or mode of thinking exhibited by practitioners who call attention to patterns of inequity in student outcomes. These practitioners are willing to take personal and institutional responsibility for the success of their students, and critically reassess their own practices.”

Through PR2ISM, Francis and other facilitators encourage participants to think about how they can better consider the lived experiences of students and create meaningful interactions and systems of support to help students persist and succeed in STEM disciplines.

Initially Francis identified PR2ISM facilitators through her own network of academics focused on race and equity, but as the program rolled out, more people wanted to get involved. “Our facilitators recognized that these conversations are not happening in their spaces, so they were excited to be involved and recommended others to contact,” said Francis.

Launched in late July, PR2ISM drew over 1,200 individuals to its 17 interactive workshops, some sessions attracting upwards of 280 attendees. The workshops cover a range of topics, including online learning, equitable assessments, mentoring, leadership, health, and environmental justice. Francis made space available during certain panel sessions for students to participate.

Our facilitators recognized that these conversations are not happening in their spaces, so they were excited to be involved and recommended others to contact.

Leadership at other colleges and universities, looking to adopt similar offerings, are now contacting Francis for guidance. In September, Francis was invited to participate in a panel discussion for the National Academies of Science on “student-centered online learning” with representatives from schools including Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Spelman. She also contributed to the UW Resilience Lab’s new “Well-Being For Life and Learning Guidebook” (p. 34) designed for faculty and instructors.

The summer PR2ISM workshop series concluded in early September, and Francis is working on future programming. Staying true to her student-centered approach to developing STEM curriculum, Francis is talking with students in PR2ISMatic Thursdays — a program run by and for BIPOC STEM students — to get their input on future workshops.

The success of PR2ISM generated enthusiasm for more professional development programs aimed at supporting staff and instructors — including teaching assistants and postdocs — who often serve a critical role in helping underrepresented students succeed.

That was the case for Shirley Malcom, an alumna and recognized expert on equity in education, who initially struggled in introductory chemistry courses during her time at the UW. Malcom credits the support of a teaching assistant who helped her understanding of the material. Among her many accomplishments, Malcom has served the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), leading initiatives to encourage young students to pursue careers in science. “Everybody needs someone who can step up as a guide or mentor, somebody who believes in them,” said Malcom in a 2016 College of Arts and Sciences profile.

Last fall the UW awarded a Diversity Seed Grant to the Department of Chemistry to lead and implement a mentoring and support network program for faculty, staff, trainees and graduate students in STEM units. The curriculum, developed by Francis, focuses on holistic mentoring that is strengths-based, culturally responsive, and mentee-centered.

"Many participants have expressed feeling energized to do more for our students and their units and communities," Francis said.

The multi-unit mentoring initiative is co-sponsored by the Washington Research Foundation; Department of Chemical Engineering; School of Medicine — Office of Research and Graduate Education; Postdoc Diversity Alliance; College of Engineering STARS Program; Office for the Advancement of Engineering Teaching and Learning; and Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.

“This focus on equity in STEM education is fortunately being explored as ‘something we should consider doing’ at many universities across the country,” said Daniel Pollack, divisional dean of the natural sciences. “Thanks to TK’s momentous efforts and considerable talents, the UW has made significant progress in this space over the past year.”

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