Grant Promotes Inclusivity, Diversity Within STEM

Drew Eastland ‘21

Sports Editor

On January 11th 2019, Davidson College launched the Fostering Inclusivity & Respect in Science Together (FIRST) Action Team. The FIRST Action Team started after Davidson received a one-million-dollar grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The main goal of FIRST is to foster more inclusivity in Davidson STEM courses.

The FIRST Action Team is composed of a faculty leadership team, a student committee, and a student consulting team. The faculty team and student committee are composed of six members each, and the consulting team is made up of around 70 students.

All members of the FIRST Action Team are working together to address issues regarding diversity and inclusivity in STEM courses at Davidson. According to the FIRST Action Team, Davidson finds itself below national averages for minority students in STEM fields.

“The idea behind the leadership team…is that they are supposed to address issues that hinder student success in STEM,” Claudia Hernandez ‘20 explained, “The FIRST Action Team is a committee that works under that umbrella; we identify those issues that hinder student success.”

The FIRST Action student team meets at least once a week to discuss their projects and new ideas. They meet with the larger consulting team once a month. Several weeks ago they published two infographics attempting to spark awareness for the lack of diversity in Davidson STEM.

“This is a very big-time commitment on our part,” Hernandez said. “Those infographics took a minute.”

The team’s main project has been to implement a program similar to what Haverford College calls Students as Teachers and Learners (SaLT). SaLT involves students outside of a professor’s discipline coming into classrooms and critiquing professors’ teaching techniques .

“We believe bringing that to campus would help empower students of color…to dictate how professors can be more inclusive to them as well as other students,” Hernandez said. “The student consultant’s role is to point out any practices the professor may not see, as well as to point out any microaggressions that a professor may say.”

While there could be some initial resistance, the SaLT program will not be mandatory, but it will be suggested as a way for professors to improve their own teaching style and ability.

“I definitely think that if we enforce this program that we’d have a lot of that resistance,” FIRST Action student committee member, Sabid Hossain ‘21, commented. “We hope that faculty who want to improve their educational pedagogy and who want to improve as professors will get on board with this.”

The FIRST Action Team also hopes to increase the number of Justice, Equality, and Community (JEC) courses in STEM. Currently, there are only three STEM courses that meet JEC requirements. Only one of the three was offered in the last two semesters.

“Something that I noticed is the lack of diversity and inclusion in the content material of STEM,” Hossain explained. “To not have JEC courses within the STEM fields…creates this idea that there are no issues of diversity and inclusion in the STEM field.”

The FIRST Action faculty team has already been working on adding more STEM courses and was happy to hear that students were pushing for more JEC courses.

When Davidson biology professor and HHMI grant director Dr. Barbara Lom heard students were proposing more JEC courses she was delighted; “It’s beautiful to say we thought [more JEC courses were] what we needed and the students saying, ‘we need this.’”

On Thursday, April 11th, the student committee met with the Davidson Board of Trustees to discuss their work and ideas for improving STEM diversity in the future. The discussion was well received.

“I thought for the most part it was a really productive conversation,” Hossain reflected. “We want to inform [The Board of Trustees] of what we are doing, but we also really want to ask for their help.”

The students involved with FIRST are motivated to make a difference in the Davidson community. They hope to represent minority voices effectively and from a position of solidarity.

“I’m just trying to make sure Davidson goes in the right direction,” Hernandez commented. “I noticed the people who were talking about diversity were not those who are impacted by it the most; that really frustrated me and annoyed me.”

To the FIRST Action team, increasing diversity in STEM is crucial to improving problem solving skills, thinking outside the box, and adding new perspectives to old problems.

“If science is going to be competitive and find the next black hole picture…we need to have diverse teams,” Lom explained. “The more perspectives, more voices, more experiences on a team, [then] you’re going to think of a new approach.”

The HHMI grant lasts five years, and the FIRST Action program is just beginning. Since the grant funds are limited, the changes implemented will be based on sustainability.

“This project is about…how can we change the culture, climate, [and] environment.” Lom explained, “If a faculty member gets feedback that may help them be more inclusive for the rest of their career; that’s culture change.”

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