Addressing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Science in an Undergraduate Course

June 5, 2020

The breadth of coverage of any undergraduate science course makes it challenging to address anything beyond the science content. This means most science courses don’t tackle topics of diversity, equity and inclusion. If we aren’t intentional about discussing these topics in the classroom, science will continue to reflect the systemic inequities of society and education. My colleague and I started the Science, Ethics, and Society course when we were teaching the biology capstone at Cedar Crest College, in Allentown, Pa. As an all-women’s undergraduate institution, we wanted to generate a “tool box” for our students to help them negotiate their future science careers. 

When I moved to the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, in St. Louis, Mo., there were aspects of the Science, Ethics, and Society class that I wanted to bring to my new students. For this co-ed environment, and as I gained training and awareness of social justice issues in science, I reduced the focus on women and increased the coverage of other underrepresented individuals in science. I decided to make the course elective and accessible to more students, trimming capstone material and accepting that students may have covered less, and more varied, science in their preparative courses. It remains an upper-level, discussion-based and writing-intensive course. 

The students prepare for the course by reading materials on a course management system and submitting summaries. This empowers them to have an informed voice to share in our classroom discussions, where I am the facilitator. As the course develops, content can bump against students’ held beliefs or push them to their learning edges, so it is important to share class norms in a syllabus and discuss them from day one. Each unit concludes with an essay, with informal writing across the semester. 

In the first section, we look at how the public perceives science and scientists, and the use and regulation of research subjects. We read about how the media presents women scientists and how that impacts our view of their contributions. We ponder that, while science strives to be objective and unbiased, it is performed by humans, who are, by nature, biased. We then read the literature on bias in science and in scientists. When we address human subjects in research, we deliberate informed consent, the challenges of study recruitment and drug trial outsourcing. We also discuss some of the cases in history that led to the necessity of ethical codes. 

Most of these topics have not been a part of the students’ pure content courses, but they have some experiences to bring to their understanding of conversations, such as how they have experienced or witnessed bias in their education to date. A discussion that particularly resonates with the students is a new way of conceptualizing bias as how we benefit some individuals because of connections we’ve made with them, as opposed to only viewing it as practice of negative interactions towards some individuals.  This helps them accept and reflect on their own biases more easily.

In the middle section, we reflect on how the community of scientists in the U.S. does not match the population of the U.S. as a whole. We investigate the proposed explanations of why there are few women in the upper echelons of science and then view and discuss the data. We look at the experiences of people of color and of underrepresented identities in science, and consider how group stereotypes limit our view of an individual. Students come to recognize that race is a social construct. We contemplate how science and medicine have not always been welcoming to members of the LGBTQIA+ community or those with a disability, and how our biases can directly impact and perpetuate patient health disparities.  Students are empathetic and quick to acknowledge they haven’t thought about particular hurdles that others may face.  And it becomes clear to them that we are missing out on the contributions by individuals who bring different questions, information and problem-solving approaches to science when we don’t make science accessible and inviting to all. 

In the third unit, we dig further into scientific integrity and research misconduct, who owns and funds science, personalized medicine, genetics and eugenics. Students are struck by how advances or perceived advances in medicine must be balanced with informed consent, funding, ownership, ethics and treatment of patients. From our discussions, students are reminded that scientists make mistakes just like everyone else and that the questions and issues they face are much more grey than the black and white they might have previously considered.

This course helps students see how the culture of science has been created and sustained, how it has not encouraged equal participation and how it could be shaped differently to benefit from a diversity of ideas and individuals. As one student reflected about the course impact “I see more how biases exist in those I once thought were unbiased thinkers. My daily conversations have even changed. I have found myself thinking as if a blinder has been taken off my eyes, even though I did not know I was once so blind.” Purposefully discussing these topics can position students to see what is at play in our system and culture of science and how they may become agents of change in their future positions in science or medicine.   

Read the Inclusive Science issue of the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, including Reese, A. An Undergraduate Elective Course That Introduces Topics of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into Discussions of Science

Read JMBE's Inclusive Science Issue

Author: Amy J. Reese, Ph.D.

Amy J. Reese, Ph.D.
Amy J. Reese, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biology at the University of Health Sciences & Pharmacy in St Louis.