Being Human in STEM: Moving from Student Protest to Institutional Progress

When a one-hour sit-in organized by three Black women students in support of Black Lives Matter on November 12, 2015, exploded into a four-day occupation of the Amherst College Library, nearly two thousand students, staff, faculty, and administrators crowded together, transfixed by honest and painful testimonials from marginalized students. Quickly named the Amherst Uprising, the sit-in proved to be not only a transformative moment of reckoning for the campus but also a catalyst for significant individual, grassroots, and institutional changes and initiatives that are advancing equity and inclusion at Amherst to this day.

Over the previous decade, Amherst had successfully transformed the racial and socioeconomic composition of our student body. Forty-five percent of our US students are now students of color, and 28 percent of the class of 2022 is eligible for federal Pell Grants for students from low-income backgrounds. But the necessary overhaul of the institutional climate had lagged. Perhaps the default hypothesis was that a melting-pot effect would allow students from different demographics to succeed in the same ways as had past generations of (mostly White, straight, and until remarkably recently, male) Amherst students. However, by making public their stories of being current students at Amherst, these courageous persons of color and other marginalized identities were pointing out the experimental design flaw. More than that, they were trusting the faculty and administration to listen, learn, and partner with them to reimagine an Amherst that could truly embrace the diversity of all our students.

When it became obvious that some disciplinary areas (such as STEM) were less outwardly supportive of the protest than others, students wrote to every STEM department asking for their support. Possibly, STEM faculty were initially less involved in this movement because most of them are trained to see their disciplines as objective and removed from the human element. Issues of inclusion, therefore, may not seem central to their roles as educators and scientists. However, many STEM faculty experienced a critical turning point as they read the words of Louise Atadja, a Black neuroscience major. In a letter to STEM faculty, Louise wrote,

In the past few days, my fellow classmates have shared their stories, tears, and frustrations due to the racism they face every day at Amherst in academic and social settings. As both a woman and a student of color, I too have shared in their experiences of loneliness and isolation in a field devoid of mentors who have gone through similar experiences and could support me in the challenge of taking on a STEM major. . . . I felt compelled to write this letter because of my respect and love for the STEM field as well as the Amherst community.

In response to Louise’s letter and an email from a nonbinary queer student to all STEM department chairs, every STEM department wrote a letter of support for the sit-in, emphasizing the faculty’s commitment to student success and a desire to work together to enact change.

Seeking to Understand Student Experiences

Wrestling with the tangle of my own intersecting identities and privilege as an upper-middle-class, biracial, lesbian biochemist and child of two professors, I felt compelled to respond to that “respect and love” for both STEM and Amherst that had motivated students to start this conversation. To gather a deeper understanding of student experiences in STEM, and to help students advance this initiative, I developed an anonymous survey asking students, “What would you like your STEM professors to know about your experience at Amherst?”

The responses were eye-opening, detailing anecdotes of race-, disability-, gender-, class-, and sexual orientation–based experiences that occurred regularly in STEM classrooms, laboratories, and office hours and interfered with students’ ability to learn, often proving so discouraging that they dropped their STEM ambitions altogether. These experiences reflected patterns well documented in the literature on marginalized individuals pursuing STEM careers (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2016; Museus et al. 2011). Amherst students highlighted the paucity of concordant race and gender role models within STEM departments on campus (Price 2010). (For perspective, at that time, there was only one STEM professor who identified as Black). Moreover, many of the students emphasized that these demographic issues weren’t just about numbers—they materially affected the students’ confidence and engagement within the classroom (Crombie et al. 2003). Importantly, this was not just because marginalized students felt less connected to the STEM faculty members teaching them but also because the absence of visible STEM role models left them wondering whether they belonged in these spaces (Cech and Waidzunas 2011). Said simply: stereotype threat (Shapiro and Williams 2012) abounded.

The following three comments from the survey raised themes, which I have emphasized in bold, that seemed particularly important for considering how to move forward:

  • “I found the lack of STEM faculty at the sit-in to be extremely problematic. I understand that professors have other things going on . . . but many of us students put aside our own needs—family events, homework, sleep—to attend. It’s not just about solidarity and support, though that is a large part of it. But just as importantly, it’s about learning about experiences of Amherst that are different from our own. Experiences that I believe some professors would not otherwise be aware of.”
  • “In STEM classes there is this thing that happens where students are treated more as receptacles of information than people and sometimes there is not enough space for you to be both a student and a person, much less a POC [person of color]. Sometimes this idea of ‘color-blindness’ takes place where a professor thinks that it is better to ‘ignore’ the student’s identity but this is detrimental as it does not open avenues for the student to talk about how identifying as POC impacts their life as STEM students. And I think these are some of the reasons POC students feel more alienated and unwelcome and unfortunately leave these fields.”
  • “Yes, science is impartial but before we are scientists we are humans and there are systemic changes that the STEM departments can make.”

Response: HSTEM 1.0

As I continued to talk with students about how to harness the momentum of this unique point in Amherst history, the theme of being human as scientists emerged from our conversations. At a liberal arts institution, it seemed fitting that our response should take a combined humanistic and scientific approach. A group of students—including Louise Atadja and Sanyu Takirambudde, one of the women who had sparked the Amherst Uprising by co-organizing the original sit-in—approached me about collaborating with them to explore this topic in a more structured academic format. I eagerly signed on.

In spring 2016, I supervised a student-driven, student-centered independent study course that we titled Being Human in STEM (HSTEM). The aim of the course was simple: to understand how humanity and science intersect on our campus and beyond. Every Tuesday and Friday morning, ten of us stepped into a windowless basement statistics classroom, charting our curriculum from class to class through brainstorming, participating in discussions, conducting research, creating action lists, checking in with each other on project progress, and planning and documenting our learning and projects on “the cloud.”

Stories were always at the heart of this course. We began over dinner at my home, sharing our own narratives of navigating STEM with our diverse identities. In the subsequent weeks, we developed a trusting class dynamic that enabled us to learn from each other and our lived experiences. We then turned to the broader Amherst community, interviewing more than forty students, alumni, staff, and faculty about their encounters with STEM. We also compiled a history of Amherst’s resources for STEM students dating back to the 1970s when the college first began enrolling female students.

As the semester progressed, we searched for common threads within this collection of narratives, trying to paint an expansive picture of Amherst STEM as it stood in 2016. We didn’t want to keep these findings to ourselves. Rather, we sought to package them in a way that allowed for actionable reform from any member of our campus community. To that end, we surveyed the academic literature to understand how trends at Amherst were grounded in the larger national context of STEM inclusion and equity work. We also mapped the STEM resources at Amherst that catered to those who might feel marginalized. In the process, we compared our own landscape with those of our peer institutions, communicating with approximately twenty STEM departments about their programs supporting students. The resources we created during this watershed semester are available at the HSTEM website at http://www.beinghumaninstem.com.

At the end of the semester, students presented this work at a community salon. More than seventy students, staff, and faculty participated in the event, and we felt like we had achieved our goal of beginning to build on the promise of the Amherst Uprising by bringing together a broad cross-section of our STEM community to discuss issues we had rarely broached individually before, let alone as a class or department or across campus.

As Sanyu explained, “Having the opportunity to lead a discussion . . . that included my current chemistry professor and my future physics professor where we talked about race and gender in STEM really made me feel seen and appreciated as who I am, a Black female premedical student.”

Broadening the Reach of HSTEM

To share our results beyond Amherst, the students built the HSTEM website and were invited to Yale University that first semester in 2016 to lead a panel discussion as part of DiversiTeas, a series promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM. The experience of being treated as experts by the audience of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty from an Ivy League research university was validating and empowering for the students. They saw that their hard work in class had not only equipped them to lead our campus conversation but to influence the broader conversation around inclusion. The message of appreciation we received from the DiversiTeas student organizers also provided the first inkling that Being Human in STEM might offer a model that could be adapted in other institutional settings:

Because of your visit, our Physics Department has started its own course called Being Human in STEM, modeled on the course you and your students created. You’ve not only helped to spark meaningful discussions but you’ve also helped us to enact real change in our STEM classes.

Since then, the HSTEM model has continued to spread. In spring 2019, Yale offered the HSTEM course for the third time, and during the 2019–20 academic year, the University of Utah and Williams College will launch their first iterations of an HSTEM course. We have consulted with more than ten other higher education institutions on developing HSTEM courses, ranging from small liberal arts colleges to public research universities. And, at our third annual HSTEM Summit in April 2019, students from HSTEM courses at Amherst and Yale and an allied student-developed course on Race and Gender in the Scientific Community at Brown University presented their research to attendees from at least eight institutions.

Amherst HSTEM 2.0 and Beyond

Our HSTEM course at Amherst has also continued to evolve. Over six successive iterations of the course, we have refined the course model, building on the foundation of sharing and collecting stories of being human in STEM while engaging in academic inquiry to better inform the campus conversation and develop further intervention efforts. In addition, HSTEM students developed and piloted a two-week intensive HSTEM course that may be easier for colleagues at other institutions to implement as a first step. Close to sixty students from twenty-three majors have now participated in our course, along with cofacilitators, consultants, and support staff from across the college, including from the Amherst College Libraries, the Moss Quantitative Center, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the biology, computer science, and mathematics and statistics departments. Key products developed by Amherst HSTEM students include the following:  

  • a documentary about Being Human in STEM
  • an HSTEM inclusive practices curricular handbook describing easy-to-implement inclusive practices and an extensive list of additional resources
  • curricular guides for both the intensive and semester-long HSTEM courses, complete with references and instructional resources
  • a STEM resources guide with links for academic and community supports and STEM internship and fellowship opportunities
  • a guide for students to support thriving in STEM while navigating mental health conditions
  • workshop templates for discussing issues of diversity in STEM with college students, facilitating an inclusive STEM activity with elementary school students, and experimenting with Being Human in STEM on your own campus

These products are available at http://www.beinghumaninstem.com.

Conclusions

The fact that HSTEM is student driven and student centered has been critical to the design and success of this work. HSTEM originated from a point of crisis but instead of reacting defensively, the community responded with intentional partnership. The power of this model comes from being responsive to the demands of the local context and iteratively informed by collaboration between students, faculty, and staff. While the implementation of HSTEM depends on the specifics of the campus climate, each campus remains connected to the larger context of inclusive work through actively engaging with the literature, best practices, and a network of other institutions engaged in similar enterprises. As such, HSTEM provides a flexible model for any educational climate to increase inclusion through centering the human in STEM.

This spring marks the end of an era for HSTEM at Amherst: the five seniors in our current course were in their first semester at Amherst when the Uprising occurred. As a testament to the commitment of the student protesters who forced the campus reckoning through their courage and vulnerability three and a half years ago, Being Human in STEM has taken root and will continue to catalyze conversations, interventions, and progress related to diversity and inclusion beyond our HSTEM class and even beyond Amherst.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful for the many individuals who initiated and continue to support this work. First and foremost, I want to express my sincerest thanks to the HSTEM Pioneers (the members of the original HSTEM class), in particular Gaby Mayer, who helped draft the section on HSTEM 1.0 in this article, and Doyin Ariyibi, Louise Atadja, Ashley Bohan, Ruth Manzanares, Chelsea Nkansah-Siriboe, Emma Ryan, Sanyu Takirambudde, and Olivia Truax. Megan Lyster, cofacilitator of the HSTEM initiative since HSTEM 2.0 in fall 2016, has contributed incredible effort, energy, and innumerable hours to make this work possible. The HSTEM Fellows, Minjee Kim ’17 and Michaela Ednie ’18, have been critical partners in coordinating and documenting efforts both on and off campus, as well as creating print and online materials to share the HSTEM model more broadly. I want to thank my HSTEM coinstructors Kristen Greenland, Kristen Gardner, Tanya Leise, and Thea Kristensen. I am appreciative of the guidance provided by the Amherst College Center for Teaching and Learning, specifically Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe’s curricular and assessment-level expertise and Sarah Bunnell’s strategic partnership and invaluable support to help make this work public and capture the larger impact of the HSTEM efforts on STEM education. The director of Amherst’s new Science Center, Jess Martin, has been instrumental in integrating the HSTEM ethos into all of her programming. Finally, thank you to my colleagues in the Amherst College Department of Chemistry, Center for Community Engagement, Center for Humanistic Inquiry, Dean of Faculty Office, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and Center for Teaching and Learning for their generous financial support of the HSTEM course and initiative.

References

Cech, Erin A., and Tom J. Waidzunas. 2011. “Navigating the Heteronormativity of Engineering: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students.” Engineering Studies 3 (1): 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/19378629.2010.545065.

Crombie, Gail, Sandra W. Pyke, Naida Silverthorn, Alison Jones, and Sergio Piccinin. 2003. “Students’ Perceptions of Their Classroom Participation and Instructor as a Function of Gender and Context.” The Journal of Higher Education 74 (1): 51–76.

Museus, Samuel D., Robert T. Palmer, Ryan J. Davis, and Dina C. Maramba. 2011. “Special Issue: Racial and Ethnic Minority Students’ Success in STEM Education.” ASHE Higher Education Report 36 (6).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees: Systemic Change to Support Students’ Diverse Pathways. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/21739.

Price, Joshua. 2010. “The Effect of Instructor Race and Gender on Student Persistence in STEM Fields.” Economics of Education Review 29 (6): 901–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2010.07.009.

Shapiro, Jenessa R., and Amy M. Williams. 2012. “The Role of Stereotype Threats in Undermining Girls’ and Women’s Performance and Interest in STEM Fields.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 66 (3/4): 175–83. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-0051-0.


Sheila Jaswal is Associate Professor of Chemistry at Amherst College.

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