SEISMIC, a coalition of American research institutions striving to create more accessible STEM curriculum to underrepresented minorities, held its first annual summer meeting this week on the University of Michigan campus. Funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation in November, the project’s emergence culminated this week in a conference, uniting all participants for the first time.
Over four days, nearly 40 representatives from the 10 participating universities, which collectively enroll about 350,000 students, gathered to discuss how to foster a mindset in which STEM is a viable course of study for anyone who wishes to pursue it.
SEISMIC director Tim McKay, University professor of physics and associate chair for the undergraduate program, welcomed the group Tuesday evening at the Michigan League. McKay explained he and others had been traveling since February to nine of the 10 participating schools, meeting with representatives and introducing the project to administrators and students.
“The most important goal of this … in-person meeting, is to make this collaboration real,” McKay said. “To form the kinds of personal connections and commitments to one another which will let us accomplish some of our most ambitious dreams.”
McKay said he realized over the course of his travels how difficult STEM diversity improvement would be to achieve. Other than socioeconomic and time constraints, McKay also noted some people do not want science to be accessible.
“Progress really has been slow,” McKay said. “Conventional conceptions of introductory STEM classes are deeply embedded. They are not a product of the culture of individual institutions, but of disciplines, and if we’re really going to change these norms to create a ‘deep roots’ experience in STEM courses … we need to work on this together.”
The summer meeting, McKay said, is the first step in that direction.
“It is quite a thing to think about that a year ago the idea of even having such a meeting wasn’t even a proposal, and now here you all are — so this is really exciting for us,” McKay said. “And though it may seem that we’re just at the beginning of this project, there is, as with everything, and origin story behind it.”
McKay proceeded to tell the history of how SEISMIC came to be. He explained the University was founded in 1817 with a liberal arts curriculum in an attempt to engage every one of its students in 13 subjects, amounting to what was then called “cathel epistemia,” Latin for “all ways of knowing.” McKay went on to tell how the University was revived in 1841 with a German model of education which unites both teaching and research.
“Meanwhile, the University, of course, was growing up, meeting its mission of creating citizens for our society,” McKay said. “… At the time, the total enrollment for the University was 1,200, but they put in a lecture hall that would seat 3,000 because they knew where they were headed. They knew what was happening.”
McKay said the University held onto its values over the course of its expansion, becoming “a model for a public research university.”
“When the people in (the lecture hall) would look up at the stage, what they would see written above the stage was this statement from the Ordinance of 1787: the Northwest Ordinance,” McKay said. “‘Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged.’ Still carved on Angell Hall above the famous columns there.”
McKay told his audience it is their responsibility, as members of highly influential higher education communities, to lead by example when it comes to accountability and inclusion.
“This is a part of SEISMIC’s history, this industrial-scale university,” McKay said. “Public research universities like yours and mine, we teach at scale, right? The way we teach is like this: we have to teach thousands of students, we have to introduce them to dozens of disciplines every year and we have to figure out how to do that well.”
McKay then turned his audience’s attention to the building they were standing in: the Michigan League. He explained how the League was built in 1929 by a group of women who raised over $1 million from female alumnae of the University, protesting how women were not allowed into the Michigan Union without a male escort.
“This building is a direct result of exclusion on this campus, but it’s also a lasting sign of how a community like this might, and I think — in fact — has to respond to those kinds of problems,” McKay said.
SEISMIC, McKay said, is one way of starting to respond.
“I think that SEISMIC is an emergent project,” McKay said. “It’s the product of decades of work from thousands of individuals, including every one of you. Our community’s commitment to doing education research and changing practice has made it clear that the longstanding, traditional approaches to introductory STEM courses fall far short of everyone’s goals.”
McKay has been involved in diversifying STEM education for many years. He credits the University for their willingness to release data so his personal research could take place. McKay said he chose to involve the other nine schools SEISMIC schools because they also were “ready to expose their own data, find out what’s going on and then talk about that.”
Becky Matz, an academic specialist in the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology at Michigan State University, became involved in SEISMIC because she’d knew McKay while working with him on a similar project involving only Big 10 schools. Matz said SEISMIC can trace some of its roots back to that prior collaboration, but believes SEISMIC is more expansive in terms of both geographic and intellectual reach.
McKay said he hopes SEISMIC will grow to be even larger over the next few years.
“We certainly wish to have influence beyond just these 10 universities,” McKay said. “As I try to get across, the 10 universities are actually quite a lot by themselves, so I believe that if we can make substantive changes both in what we do and in the expectations that people have, everyone will see that and it will start to feel like a normal thing and other people will start to do the things that we’re doing, whether they join this project or not.”
McKay told the Daily there are multiple institutions who have already expressed an interest in joining. He said it is “very likely” the institutions will be included in future endeavors of the project.
Matz said she believes it is important to diversify STEM education as having different demographics present in any learning environment forces everyone else to think about things in a new way. Without an alternate mindset, Matz believes the field loses significant potential for innovation both in schools and in the workforce.
“Job fields that would employ graduates from STEM disciplines are limited right now to those who graduate, and if those who graduate aren’t really a good representation of the students who come into that degree program, much less the students who might be successful in that job field later, I think that’s a real disservice to those job fields,” Matz said. “It matters that we have different perspectives on ideas.”
Kevin Binning, a research specialist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, presented his research on one way to encourage diversity in STEM: classroom interventions that can begin to shift the way students perceive their ability. Binning said he found students with marginalized identities blame circumstance for their difficulties rather than working through them.
“We should teach students that their adversity is not unique and permanent, but actually universal and temporary,” Binning said.
Binning told the group instructors have the power to help students “maintain motivation and engagement” even when they face hardship.
“One really important skill that we teach, one power that we have as instructors is to shape the way students understand adversity,” Binning said.
Binning’s was one of the dozens of presentations given over the course of the meeting. Each idea is being considered by the group, who will decide which specific areas the team will pursue further sometime in the coming weeks.
SEISMIC is equipped with funding to continue for at least three more years. McKay said he hopes to accomplish a lot in that time, but he also knows that SEISMIC is only the beginning of a transition STEM fields have to make in the interest of diversity.
“The struggle for equity, for inclusion, it continues,” McKay said. “In fact, I don’t think it ever ends. There will always be people who are not here and who we have to find ways to bring here, to serve.”