Inclusion in STEM
Current Position: Postdoctoral Fellow in Craniofacial Biology
Program Start Date: January 2016
Institution: University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus
If I ask you to close your eyes and imagine a scientist, what do you see? Surprisingly, most people never see women, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, or people from different countries. However, scientists actually represent a very diverse pool of individuals from various backgrounds and with various world views. Scientists are problem-solvers and their diversity leads to an increase in the ways important problems are addressed. Disappointingly, statistics show that except for recent degree holders in biomedical fields, women are significantly under-represented in STEM jobs and degree programs. Lack of diversity in the STEM fields is alarming because it is a major driver of the economy. Considering this fact the University of Colorado gave a workshop called “Diversity on Campus”, it was organized for future STEM teachers*. The workshop inspired me to learn more about the subject; I even presented at the same workshop the following year. I spoke on “Inclusion in the STEM classroom” and discussed how I implemented what I learned while I mentored students through different programs, both on- and off-campus.
Diversity may be based on genealogy, geographic origin, learning styles, personal disabilities, gender, socio-economic status, and various other qualities that make individuals unique, e.g. first-generation collegiate. We learned about programs within the University of Colorado System that support inclusive excellence. The Denver STaRS, for example, supports high school seniors from traditionally under-represented minorities (URMs) who are interested in obtaining an undergraduate degree in one of the STEM fields. In Fall of 2017, this program was looking for mentors and I eagerly signed up. Without the workshop, I may have only educated my mentees in research concepts and techniques, but thanks to the workshop I was able to incorporate more. I introduced my mentees to the various STEM career opportunities and guided them through post-high school college preparatory steps, such as SAT and ACT test prep. With my undergraduate mentees, from a separate program, I discussed GRE test prep, graduate school applications, and how to choose a potential lab. I helped all my mentees look for potential scholarships suited to their profiles and guided them in choosing appropriate role models in STEM who share similar backgrounds as them.
The workshop was an eye-opener regarding disability issues too. Being considerate of things that we take for granted can make a big difference for a disabled student. For example, we can ensure appropriate lighting for students with partial visual impairment, conveniently locate and set-up the classroom for students in wheelchairs, incorporate software for text to voice and vice-versa for the hearing impaired. Proceeding to cognitive diversity, we discussed different learning styles set by educational theorist David Kolb1, which are Diverging, Converging, Assimilating, and Accommodating. Diverging learners are team-players and sensitive watchers who view problems from different perspectives and solve by imagination. Converging learners prefer technical tasks and experimenting with new ideas. Assimilators like reading, lectures, analyzing, and have a logical approach to problem solving. Accommodators rely on intuition and analysis by others for information. Knowledge of the different learning styles can help teachers develop teaching strategies accordingly. It helped me mentor graduate rotation students.
Finally, the workshop concluded with insightful discussions on how scientists and good students are often portrayed by popular media as unattractive characters. Simultaneously, female characters have rarely been portrayed as leaders, decision-makers, or STEM personnel. The influence of popular media on portraying these traditional roles has adversely affected young students, especially females, demotivating them from STEM. The hugely popular #LikeAGirl campaign and Debbie Sterling’s success story have both challenged gender stereotypes and positively contributed to countering this adverse situation. Hence, as a presenter the following year, I spoke about women in different STEM fields and gave specific historical examples. To increase cultural awareness and motivate students, I also spoke about ancient engineering, medicinal, astronomical, and agricultural practices of indigenous people worldwide.
This workshop taught how diverse a classroom can be, what types of issues this might cause, and how to address them. For example, we learnt about the issue of the “leaky STEM pipeline” where students dropout at every ascending STEM level. I was able to incorporate what I learned into improving my mentoring style and effectiveness. I know my efforts are appreciated, my mentees continue to communicate with me even after completing their internship and being well-placed in their subsequent academic careers, which include graduate school and study abroad programs. The workshop also improved my ability to mentor and judge students’ presentations at SACNAS, a society conference that fosters diversity and inclusion in STEM. Overall, this workshop is a great resource for teachers who want to improve student enrolment and retention.
Do you feel that the issues discussed here influence your outlook as a STEM professional?
* The workshop was a subcontract with the CIRTL Network NSF (National Science Foundation) project and jointly sponsored by the BEST program and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Faculty Development and the University of Colorado System
- McLeod, S. A. (2013). Kolb – learning styles. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html