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STEM faculty present anti-racism initiatives

On March 7, MCTL hosted an open conversation within and across divisions and disciplines to learn about ongoing changes to spaces and existing courses, the creation of new courses, and curriculum revisions that reflect the necessary work of anti-racism, from micro to macro. This is the first of an ongoing series of events to facilitate thinking about and collaborating on antiracist efforts on campus and to make those efforts visible.

Photo courtesy of Linda McGuire

“Your environment shapes your experience and how you think about yourself and the world. A well designed playground invites exploration and discourages sedentary behavior. But children will experience and interact with the playground in different ways. Our campus is a similar space, it invites particular actions, discourages others and shapes our experiences–if we want to invite our students to feel like they belong and do great things then we need to create a space for that.” This eloquent introduction by Dr. Matthieu de Wit, assistant professor of neuroscience, set the stage for a presentation by STEM faculty in the ways in which they have made spaces on campus more inclusive.

Dr. Linda McGuire, professor of mathematics shared her department’s anti-racism efforts such as a department reading group, a student advisory group and an effort to make certain stories more visible profiling mathematicians of color on the bulletin boards gracing the halls. “One student said that of the seven profiles that were here ‘I’ve only heard of one of these people and I didn’t realize he was African American’,” said McGuire. “The bulletin boards are simple but meaningful.” She also reported that her new 100-level course for non-majors, Mathematics for Social Justice, is up and running and while it has been challenging, McGuire is already seeing students engage with mathematics in a meaningful way. “You have these small moments like when a young woman got an A- on her exam and said ‘I have never gotten an A in a math class before, I can do this.’ and I said, yes, you can do this. You are doing it!”

In the summer of 2020, the physics department cancelled classes for a day and created a space for students to sit down and talk about the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd. “The feedback we got was that students never had a conversation like that in a science course before,” said Dr. Charles Collett, assistant professor of physics. “This was stuff that was coming in from the outside, and we were using that as an opportunity to make some intentional spaces in the classroom to have conversations that are not connected to the course material. Physics does not exist in a vacuum, we exist in a community.” Collett has since incorporated reading journals where students read articles that examine the structures that surround physics to better see that science is messy and that there are better ways to think about the system as they grow into scientists in their own right. Dr. Leah Wilson, assistant professor of neuroscience, similarly incorporated readings and discussions that go beyond the core material of her course. “We have read and discussed topics such as inequity in graduate students admissions and race disparities in NIH funding,” she explained. “Last semester the reading series was so successful, it permeated the rest of the course. Without any prompting, students are continuing these conversations.” 

Both the chemistry and biology departments made efforts in their intro courses to reduce the barriers many students face. For example, the Introductory Chemistry course no longer requires any textbooks, they use the department budget to pay for materials and loan out calculators so that students who never purchased them in high school wouldn’t have to find the funds to buy one for the class. “We wanted to reduce the barriers that students from poorly resourced high schools might have,” explained Dr. Christine Ingersoll, professor of chemistry. The biology department overhauled their introductory sequence to include a new intro course called Foundation of Biological Inquiry in hopes of increasing retention. “The course sets students in the same levels of skills to study biology,” explained Dr. Giancarlo Cuadra, assistant professor of biology, “to help those students who might have been disadvantaged and to put them in the same level, rather than fill them with content.”

Dr. Jeremy Teissere, associate professor of neuroscience closed the presentation by looking forward. He explained that his department is committed to anti-racism and wants their curriculum to reflect that. “It is essential for science majors to make science relevant to diverse audiences and communities,” said Teissere. “It’s very hard to know how to best do this so we looked directly at the curriculum.” They are hoping to formalize an elective requirement and to work on a core requirement as well as offering new courses that examine diverse perspectives in the field.

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