University receives grant to improve STEM educational experience

Amy Alcantara
Staff Writer

The University of La Verne is part of a national educational study to create a better community for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. In December 2022 the Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded a six-year grant to the university as part of the Inclusive Excellence 3 initiative. The funds will be used to design a process that revises and examines courses, teaching evaluations and gathers data on professors’ effectiveness.

“We made a written commitment that we shared with all the students. The faculty of the natural science division composed this commitment,” Christine Broussard, professor of Biology, said. “In it, we said we are going to get training, departments and programs will revise courses and the Natural Science Division will revise its evaluation process so that the expectation for effective and inclusive teaching will become a part of our evaluation.”

This grant will help develop a better way to evaluate professors and lay out a better rubric for teaching expectations. By collecting this data universities will have a better idea of how to create a community for students to feel accepted and that they belong. Inclusive Excellence 3 incorporates and promotes diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in STEM.

“It is to promote a sense of belonging in STEM for students,” Karlita Warren, co-activities director and research specialist, said. “This sense of belonging regardless of race, gender, sex, social economic status, sexual orientation and ability because there is some research that says that some of those classifications may not always feel like they can be successful in STEM.” 

Students who are part of STEM often leave the course due to the lack of a sense of belonging in the program. With this new approach to developing and integrating justice, diversity, inclusion, equity into STEM they hope to accomplish giving students a sense of support, acceptance and security. By being able to accomplish that goal and providing that feeling of belonging they aim to retain more students in the STEM program.

“Students sometimes present themselves as if they do belong in STEM but could start having feelings of doubt once they see others grasping lessons and developing their critical thinking skills quicker than others,” Gabriela Rojas, a sophomore biology major, said. “They tend to feel as if they do not belong and are not able to offer something back.”

Someone’s experience in STEM is not supposed to bring them down, Rojas added. She hopes that this grant not only breaks down stigma but also unifies a tighter community. 

The HHMI grant will help fund the scientific study to have outside experts review and conduct research on the data collected on student success to determine if the schools are being successful and effective with the new approach for inclusion.

“The short-term benefit is that through the various funding sources, we are able to enhance and improve the support that we have for students like spaces to use for learning, laboratories and equipment,” Broussard said. “Through this JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, inclusion) and STEM project, we are able to improve the quality of what we have to offer the students both physically and environmentally in the sense of belonging in the learning environment.”

Professors within these fields are being challenged by the addition of the professional development program to their regular workload. Schools do not want to overwork professors but do want to make sure they are doing everything possible to enhance what they do in the classroom to provide a better educational experience for students.

There are 104 schools nationally receiving the HHMI six-year grant. This grant is not a traditional competitive award. The goal for the 104 institutions is to collaborate, network and form a relationship to support each other and learn from one another. Plans to extend the grant in the future will be decided when the study and experiment conclude in 2028.

“HHMI is looking to these universities to see if this model works,” Vanessa Preisler, professor of physics, said.“I think it’s a great model because we get to learn from other institutions, we are able to share and collaborate which I always think that’s the best kind of model. I think after this grant concludes and they see if it works well, I don’t see why HHMI wouldn’t do it again.”

Universities, faculty and students working together might be the key to making changes in the STEM program. This may be the beginning of how institutions start incorporating more collaborative grants, programs and experiments to create a better community, education and support for students. 

“Our hope is to actually see STEM culture change happen,” Broussard said. “That seems to be the missing piece for all of the STEM transformation efforts that have happened in the last 30 years. We know active learning works, different pedagogical approaches are better for STEM students, but it’s been a struggle nationally and even globally to get faculty to adopt those more effective ways of teaching and what hasn’t been addressed by those efforts is that sense of belonging.” 

Amy Alcantara can be reached at amairani.alcantaramontes@laverne.edu

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Amy Alcantara, a junior communications major with and emphasis in public relations, is a staff writer for the Campus Times.

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