Small Classroom Changes With Big DEI Impact

Sept. 29, 2021

It’s no secret that STEM fields in the United States need a major overhaul when it comes to improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Educators in STEM fields can make changes in support of themselves, their students and their colleagues to positively impact DEI. Here are some recommendations that will, at the very least, stimulate discussion and can inspire others to join the movement.

Educating the Educator

DEI encompasses complex, intertwined concepts. It is nearly impossible to achieve success in one of these areas without at least some success in the others, and it requires understanding the terms and concepts to begin working toward positive change. Recognizing that there is room to improve knowledge and understanding of DEI, then finding educational resources to do so, is an essential first step to being informed. These resources exist in various forms, many of which are regularly updated with the most current information. Because the field is ever-changing, it is imperative to refer to trusted sources to stay up to date on DEI issues, as that makes it possible to continue working toward meaningful change both within and beyond the field of microbiology.

For those in the field of microbiology, ASM has numerous resources that discuss DEI issues within STEM, such as web articles, editorials, articles, curriculum and tips and tools published in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force Report, which was released in Dec. 2020. In addition, ASM has hosted several podcasts that examine diversity, equity and inclusion in microbiology. Beyond ASM, an abundance of readily-available resources exist, including TED Talks that cover a wide range of diversity topics, a report on the state of DEI in STEM from STEMconnector and open online courses (some of which are free) via Coursera, edX or Open Culture. Many institutions also have information and resources on DEI that are specific to their campus, which may serve as a reliable starting point for faculty.

Start With Your Syllabus

STEM educators can also make a conscious decision to change their courses to help support students by creating a safe space for encouraging, open and honest discussion. This can be accomplished by including a diversity or inclusion statement in the course syllabus, which serves as initial communication to students that the course will be an inclusive and supportive environment for all, and outlines expectations and guidelines for respectful discussions. A diversity statement should be inclusive of types of diversity beyond race and gender, such as age, affectional identity, religion, disability, etc. There are many other considerations for creating a diversity or inclusion statement in the course syllabus; this collection of questions, prompts, recommendations and sample text from several higher education institutions in the U.S. is an excellent starting point.

The course syllabus presents multiple additional opportunities to highlight DEI within the course. One recent publication, Rethinking the Course Syllabus: Considerations for Promoting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, is a great resource with examples of how to incorporate DEI principles throughout the syllabus, such as centering authors from diverse backgrounds in the course or creating learning objectives that focus on diversity.

Other information that may be helpful to students, especially non-traditional, first-generation or historically underrepresented students, should also be incorporated into the syllabus. One example is providing explanations for academic jargon, including words or phrases such as “didactics,” “asynchronous,” “summative assessment” and many others. Another example is the inclusion of family-friendly policies, like ensuring breastfeeding mothers are informed of clean and private spaces where they can pump if needed, or not penalizing student-parents for missing a class due to an ill child or last-minute childcare needs. Faculty can also consider including links to resources on campus, such as the student health clinic, local food pantries or wellness programs.

Supporting Students & Creating Safe Spaces

Writing a comprehensive syllabus that promotes DEI is just one step towards providing the support and creating the safe space students need. Educators can also work to increase visibility of the diversity that exists in their field, as representation is critical to recruiting and retaining a diverse student and faculty population. Scheduling guest lectures, class discussions or lunch-and-learn sessions covering appealing topics can help introduce students to a multitude of professionals with diverse backgrounds. Expanding discussion topics beyond the scope of the course to include how the course topic might be applied or used outside of research settings will also help expose students to professionals who hold positions outside of academia. For instance, a biosafety professional could speak to microbiology students about requirements to obtain a biosafety position, what a typical day looks like or the occupational outlook for biosafety professionals.

Another change that can be implemented at the course level is providing accessible materials as often as possible. Students at one institution requested audio recordings of lectures that were compatible with a cell phone. It turns out, some of these students commute upwards of 30-45 minutes to and from work and use that time to listen to and review lectures. A simple solution is to provide pre-recorded or recorded live lectures uploaded to YouTube. YouTube also offers closed captioning, which can be time consuming to edit, but results in greater accessibility for students. One common request from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Office or Disability Services Office is to grant extended time for exams, which is a relatively easy adjustment to make, especially with the multitude of test taking software options available today. These types of changes can benefit students by providing materials in multiple formats and accommodating their needs, which ensures equity.

Advocating for and With Colleagues

Diversity among staff and faculty is just as vital as diversity among students, and support for colleagues from differing backgrounds is critical to retention efforts. All faculty are required to build their portfolio to increase chances for promotion and tenure, and faculty from historically underrepresented groups are no exception. The ranks of tenured faculty are still overwhelmingly white, with Black professors accounting for just 5% of tenured faculty. Faculty members of color face barriers to promotion and tenure that their white counterparts do not. For example, faculty members of different racial or ethnic backgrounds often deal with ethno-racial microaggressions, greater demands for mentoring students of color and navigating a complicated system without assistance from family members who came before them.

There are plenty of ways that faculty members can advocate for their colleagues with diverse backgrounds. The invisible labor done by non-white faculty members in addition to the visible efforts they put forth can and should be acknowledged. These colleagues also deserve to be nominated for awards and recognition, and all faculty members should make a conscious effort to not only submit nominations for these colleagues, but also write letters of support for them using inclusive language that is free of racial or gender bias.

Another important step that can be taken is acknowledging that implicit bias exists within everyone. Faculty members can take one of several Implicit Association Tests (IAT) developed by researchers from Harvard University, University of Washington and University of Virginia. The IAT measures implicit attitudes and beliefs and provides possible interpretations of results. Once identified, individuals can work toward reducing that bias by being open to engaging in difficult discussions and taking time to sincerely listen to the needs of colleagues with diverse backgrounds. Lessening implicit bias and the impact it can have on others can help cultivate safe spaces for colleagues.

This is a brief overview of some actions that STEM educators can take that can positively impact diversity, equity and inclusion. Faculty members may feel overwhelmed at tackling DEI issues because they are complex, vast in number and deeply rooted in history. It is worth remembering, though, that change does not come all at once and even relatively small changes can lead to sustainable progress.

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Author: Lindsey Clark, M.P.H.

Lindsey Clark, M.P.H.
Lindsey Clark is an Assistant Professor in the laboratory sciences department at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and a member of ASM’s Committee on the Status of Women in Microbiology.