AAC&U News, April 2020
Perspectives

Closing the Gap: Perspectives from a Cross Scholar on Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

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By Zach del Rosario

Zach del Rosario is a PhD candidate in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Stanford University, where he cofounded Stanford SeeME, an outreach program for local high school students. He received the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award at AAC&U’s 2020 annual meeting in January. Zach will start as a visiting professor at Olin College of Engineering this fall.

 

“Zach, you are widening the gap,” my friend Elizabeth, a veteran public-school teacher with a perspective I lacked, told me. “These kids you’re teaching in outreach—they’re all white and East Asian!”

Though my first instinct was to argue, I had the sense to stop and listen.

For years, I had worked with a student-run outreach program for high schoolers hosted at Stanford University. Unfamiliar with the nature of the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought enthusiasm would be enough to have a positive impact on the students.

After scraping my jaw off of the floor, I realized that Elizabeth was right. Of course, students of privilege would have the network and resources to attend our program, whereas underrepresented students would not. I was “widening the gap” between the educational haves and have-nots.

This was a tough lesson to learn: As a bookish, curious, half-Filipino kid raised in western Pennsylvania, I had faced exclusion throughout my childhood. It was only as an undergraduate at Olin College of Engineering—in an inclusive, student-centered environment—that I started to develop a positive sense of identity and belonging. The realization that in my work with the outreach program I was excluding other marginalized students, frankly, made me want to quit. But for my love of and belief in education, I might have done just that.

SeeMe: Toward Intentional Outreach

Elizabeth’s insight led me down a different path: I cofounded a new engineering outreach program for local high school students in the San Francisco area, SeeME, with a mission to be intentional about our audience.

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SeeME students and teachers in action.

SeeME has two mutually reinforcing goals: (1) to equip our graduate student teachers with pedagogical training so they practice effective and inclusive teaching, and (2) to make sure our marketing and teaching reach young students who might not be familiar with engineering.

Goal 1 supports Goal 2 by equipping our teachers—graduate students looking to get young students excited about engineering—with tools to be effective and inclusive teachers. Our training draws from evidence-based practices1 and my experience as a professional teaching consultant at Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning. This training not only equips future faculty with teaching tools they might otherwise miss, but it also helps them teach diverse students effectively and inclusively.

Goal 2 supports Goal 1 by controlling the narrative. We make our mission clear at every stage of recruiting and training our student teachers. Some teachers join us because the mission resonates with them. Others join because they’re simply excited to talk about engineering. Either way, we signal to our teachers that we are working to advance inclusion. The result is that we win allies.

One of our teachers once told me, “Teaching with SeeME really opened my eyes. I’m realizing I grew up privileged, but there are a lot of people who don’t have the same advantages.”

Does this mean SeeME turns away white and East Asian students? Of course not. That would be a different form of exclusion. But in my experience, when everyone in the room looks the same, it usually signals that an organization has not made diversity a priority. Efficacy requires intentionality.

Our leadership team has responded to issues of representation by recruiting additional female teachers and winning funding from Stanford to provide buses to and from campus for high school students without transit. Our team continues to refine the goals.

Bringing Faculty into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts

This model—a combination of empowerment and signaling—has great potential for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But this approach worked to recruit and train graduate students; how do we gain faculty buy-in?

In practice, my levers as a student leader are modest: carefully shaping our language and ensuring the training is consistent with that language.

Administrators have a potent lever: money. Institutions that have put dollars toward advancing diversity at the undergraduate transition, graduate, and postdoctoral stages demonstrate their high level of commitment. These programs use review criteria that do not just reward being diverse but also incentivize a demonstrated commitment to DEI.

Institutions serious about advancing DEI could shape the narrative through internal review criteria; for instance, earmarking course design funds to bring neglected perspectives into the curriculum. Nothing sends a message quite like controlling the purse strings.

As I transition from a student to faculty role, I continue to reflect on Elizabeth’s insight. How will I keep working to close the gap?

To start, I am adapting the goals I wrote for SeeME for my new role as a visiting professor at Olin College:

  1. Regard students as assets—not consumers—in advancing DEI.
  2. Reflect on and discuss who is—and who is not—included and valued in the classroom.

Students, like our SeeME teachers, have the desire and drive to advance DEI. Moreover, my students bring a wealth of lived experiences, which will help me grow in Goal 2. Conversing with and empowering students will help me to realize the potential of Goal 1. Through curricular choices, supporting students, and continued attentive listening, I plan to work toward these goals—and toward closing the gap.


Note

1. Rodger W. Bybee, Joseph A. Taylor, April Gardner, Pamela Van Scotter, Janet Carlson Powell, Anne Westbrook, and Nancy Landes, “The BSCS 5E Instructional Model: Origins and Effectiveness,” BSCS, June 12, 2006, https://media.bscs.org/bscsmw/5es/bscs_5e_full_report.pdf; Kimberly D. Tanner, “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity,” CBE—Life Sciences Education 12 (3): 322–331, https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-06-0115.

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