About a third of first-year undergraduates who intend to study in fields related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are underrepresented minorities, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

Virginia Tech received a $1 million, five-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to engage all students studying science, especially students from diverse pathways, to be successful in its Inclusive Excellence initiative. The idea behind the grant is to help such institutions as Virginia Tech work with first-generation students and students transferring in from community colleges to guide them into STEM-related careers.

Jill Sible is the associate provost for Undergraduate Education. She will serve as Virginia Tech’s program director for this initiative.

“[We’re] taking a hard look at ourselves and the ways in which we welcome students … the ways in which we offer opportunities to different populations of students,” said Sible, “and how we can make real, internal changes for the better in science education.”

Sible and the rest of the team — consisting of Sarah Karpanty of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Michele Deramo from the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, Debby Good of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Mike Bowers from the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science — have worked for more than a year to bring this initiative to Virginia Tech. Before the full proposal was due in October 2016, the HHMI received 511 pre-proposals and selected 24 schools from that.

The grant team is still in the planning stages, but has started to collect data before the initiative begins in September. They plan to evaluate how Virginia Tech has created unintended barriers to participation and success for students entering science majors from non-traditional paths.

“As we looked at which students were participating and which students were not, we identified several faculty and departments that were already making some bold steps to reform their pedagogy, or the curriculum in their department to promote diversity and inclusion,” Sible said.

The project team wants to focus on implementing inclusive teaching and designing inclusive curricula.

“[First-generation and transfer] students, in simple terms, just have different backgrounds, needs and expectations,” said Karpanty, an assistant department head. “It’s really explicitly being aware of that in the classroom, in your mentoring, and how you design the curriculum.”

The three different departments will begin the process of implementing changes. With each year, Sible expects more departments and faculty members to participate.

“We have already had preliminary conversations with other science departments,” said Sible, “ ... that they’re eager to participate, to be a part of this in the ensuing years.”

Karpanty said the participating departments are already doing certain things well.

“The idea is for us to do it even better and then share what we learn with others on campus” Karpanty said.

While setting an example, faculty will adapt the way they teach to better support student learning. Karpanty said “the trick will be to modify curricula so transfer students can complete science degrees in a timely manner and still learn material needed to be competitive in the job market.”

“It’s very hard for transfer students to come in and finish in two years. There’s so many science courses that they have to take, and many of them are here for two-and-a-half, three, or even more years,” she said.

Michele Deramo, the director of Diversity Education and Initiatives in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, said that Virginia Tech has good structures in place. Such initiatives as InclusiveVT and the Diversity Development Institute help shape an inclusive environment in and outside the classroom.

“If you create an inclusive, safe, welcoming, and accommodating climate in the classroom, students are going to thrive. They are going to perform better, and they’re going to persist,” said Deramo. “Conversely, studies have shown that when people perceive that they are being judged through the lens of stereotypes, they tend to underperform.”

Debby Good, an associate professor of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, said this issue really hits home for her.

“I was a first-generation college student. I see that we can make some real progress and real advances in helping first-generation [students] navigate through their years in college,” Good said.

Mike Bowers, an assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience, is excited to get the initiative started within his own department.

“I have a great interest in trying to help young people acclimate into the university setting and to be able to attribute to a curriculum change is really something I’m looking forward to achieving in my department,” Bowers said.

Out of the 24 institutions chosen to be in the initiative, two universities in Virginia were selected. Radford University has also been awarded with a $1 million grant. Sible said she’s excited to work with a nearby institution.

“We see some tremendous opportunities to work together and partner on our initiatives, which have some definite shared goals, but with an opportunity to learn from each other as well,”  Sible said.

This isn’t the first time Sible worked with the HHMI. The institute has funded science education projects that she’s worked on in the past.

“I think it helped with an understanding of their goals and also the motivation for me to pull a team together and apply in the first place,” said Sible. “It was definitely worth our time and effort trying to be a part of this.”

All participating institutions will meet in August at the HHMI’s headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

The HHMI is the largest private, nonprofit supporter of science education in the U.S.

Written by Olivia Coleman

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