The University of Michigan’s Central Student Government and the knowledge community, Growing STEM, organized a town hall of faculty and students Monday night to discuss the inadequate representation of women and minorities in STEM majors. The event provided an opportunity for faculty members to share their research and for students to share their experiences.

University records published in Fall 2015 show the School of Engineering was 25 percent female and 2 percent Black, and out of 9,428 students enrolled at the time, only 64 of them were female Black students. This is just one example of how underrepresentation in STEM is an issue the University community is still grappling with. 

CSG Vice President Nadine Jawad, a Public Policy senior, opened the event. She said one of the largest issues hindering representation is minority students simply not being aware of the available resources. An important part of solving this, she said, is to consider what directly or indirectly affects student learning.

“I think the way we have to approach this conversation is thinking about both the direct and indirect ways students are impacted in the classroom,” Jawad said. “CSG has divided our work around STEM in these different ways. One is the direct way, so the small initiatives or programs we can improve. The other way is for long-term, more indirect advocacy work that impacts students inside and outside of STEM.”

Physics professor Tim McKay and Meg Bakewell, director of the Foundational Course Initiative, delivered the first presentation. They discussed their work on the Foundational Course Initiative, a research project aimed at improving curriculums and student experiences in introductory courses. These courses tend to be large lectures with students of varying backgrounds and interests. McKay noted not all students will necessarily be successful when taught in this general way.

“The students are not all the same, so if you put them through exactly the same thing, it’s not right for almost anybody,” McKay said.

McKay urged students to help them improve introductory courses by taking surveys and encouraging their professors to experiment.

“We’re trying to make Michigan the laboratory for education on a scale like this so that we can lead the world in doing this kind of education,” McKay said. “You have a role to play in this.”

Chris Bass, director of the Women in Science and Engineering Residence Program, presented data highlighting the benefits the program provided for underrepresented, first-generation students. These benefits include a higher GPA and a higher likelihood to finish your degree in a science field. Bass said one of the challenges was figuring out what about the WISE RP program caused these benefits.

“We’re also thinking more about being able to dissect this data,” Bass said. “What aspects of those benefits that I showed you made the difference? How do we identify what’s really working and enhance that? We really need to dig deeper to get at what’s working.”

Joe Salvatore, director of the Science Learning Community, discussed the mission, environment, staff, programs and collaborations of the SLC. Salvatore highlighted underrepresented students’ stories in the SLC and a mentoring program between underclassmen and upperclassmen students. He also talked about the “growth mindset concept,” an idea based on research by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck.

“When we have a fixed mindset, we believe we’re either good at something inherently or we’re not,” Salvatore said. “The idea behind a growth mindset is to believe that all of you can learn anything. That’s a pretty powerful concept.”

Deborah Goldberg, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, talked about the creation of a new non-residential learning community, based on engaging underrepresented communities in STEM by working and collaborating with students others from those communities. The program, STEM Success Communities, will launch fall 2018 and aims to focus on reaching out to as many students as possible, as it will not be limited by residential space.

“The idea of this is the most valuable resource in college is often sitting next to you,” Goldberg said. “It is learning together.”

In the discussion portion, students shared experiences of feeling discouraged and what can be done to make the STEM environment more inclusive. A number of students noted the importance of having mentors from their backgrounds and having community support systems. The faculty members talked more about possible solutions and encouraged students to keep voicing their opinions.

Engineering freshman Sandra Dubaisi co-organized the event. She said she has enjoyed working with this issue of underrepresentation with STEM and wants to find more ways to get involved.

“I want to know how I’ll be able to advocate for it and what’s necessary for that because I’m not exactly sure,” Dubaisi said. “I’ll definitely ask around and try to write proposals, to see where that goes.”

Dubaisi also expressed her desire for other people to contribute to the conversation.

“I hope other people get involved. I know a lot of people are interested.”

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