10-School Project Tackles Equity, Inclusion in STEM Intro Courses

Representatives from 10 public research universities will be meeting in a couple of weeks to begin serious development of strategies for making large-enrollment foundation courses in STEM more accessible to students who are under-represented in the fields. The "Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses" (SEISMIC) project is intended to "shake up" the way students begin their education in science, technology, engineering and math. The project is being funded by a million-dollar grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and is scheduled to last through summer 2021.

The participating institutions represent more than 350,000 students, where nearly 75,000 try introductory STEM courses every year. Those courses, which enroll hundreds or even thousands of students, are often challenging enough to deter many students from pursuing careers in STEM. And it's especially true for those students who don't see themselves represented much among STEM professionals. For example, women make up under a third (28 percent) of the national STEM workforce, according to National Science Foundation statistics. And African Americans and Hispanics hold only 9 percent and 7 percent of STEM career positions, respectively.

"We're going to work on big intro courses in a new way," said Project Director Tim McKay, a professor at the University of Michigan in physics, astronomy and education, in a statement. "Instead of working in a single course, we'll bring together instructional teams from across all the STEM fields. Instead of working on just one campus, we will gather together teams from many universities."

The SEISMIC team members will organize their work in three working groups, focusing on:

  • Analysis of learning analytics data;

  • Coordinated experiments across multiple disciplines and many institutions; and

  • Development of improved structures for supporting introductory STEM reform.

The participating institutions have also committed to bringing in at least six speakers each year to their individual campuses from the SEISMIC partnership to create "continuous intellectual exchanges." And people from all 10 schools will meet in person every summer to continue the sharing.

The universities aren't coming into the effort empty-handed. For example, U Michigan's ECoach is a personalized communication toolkit that uses data about each student's background, interests, goals and current state to provide individually tailored feedback, encouragement and advice. The software advises students about how to study, when and where to seek help, how to respond to good or bad test performance, and how to see struggle as a positive thing. ECoach, which has also found use at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is expected to become part of a portfolio of tools used by SEISMIC institutions.

"A key goal of this project is to set a new national standard for assessing the quality of foundational STEM courses — a course cannot be excellent unless it is equitable and inclusive," said SEISMIC Project Manager Nita Kedharnath. Kedharnath, who recently received degrees in both and secondary science and math education at U Michigan, added that while the individual efforts of the participating schools show movement in the "right direction," she expects far greater — seismic — impact as they share their expertise, best practices and tools.

Besides those already mentioned, participating schools also include Michigan State University, Indiana University, Purdue University, the University of Minnesota, Arizona State University, University of Pittsburgh and the Universities of California in Irvine and Davis.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.