Higher education institutions are consciously making significant inroads in cultivating a more diverse environment not just among the student population but within the faculty as well. Making sure the administration and faculty staffs are diverse is key to supporting minority students.
This was at the center of the comments from Gilda Barabino, PhD, President of Olin College of Engineering, who spoke on creating diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), during a recent lecture at the Tufts School of Engineering. Hosted by Chris Swan, dean of undergraduate education at the Tufts School of Engineering, Barabino, addressed her desire to enter the engineering field as a way to give back to her population. In fact, she specifically studies sickle cell disease, a disease that disproportionately affects African Americans.
Used to pioneering, Barabino was the first African American to be admitted to Rice University’s graduate school of engineering and the first black female to get tenure at Northeastern University. While climbing the academia career track, she has had to deal with isolation, marginalization and breaking down psychological barriers.
One of the biggest challenges facing DEI in STEM education today, according to Barabino, is trying to make the invisible, visible—in other words, the inherited behaviors and attitudes at institutions. As an example, Barabino noted a story about a science teacher she had that said she should consider a different field of study.
“When a person of authority says something like this, it has a lasting impact on a young person,” she said. “People want a sense of belonging.” Therefore, to create equity and inclusion at a higher level, students must experience positive encouragement before ever entering a college or university.
In addition, Barabino says there is a need in higher education for “building human capacity.” In other words, there needs to be a support system and mentoring programs in place for every step of a student’s educational process, especially for those from under-represented populations.
Swan agreed, saying, “Getting anyone to stay in academia is tough.”
One of the main reasons that Barabino chose an administrative track in academia is so that she could create these support systems and “be a part of the decision-making process,” she said. “I left Georgia Tech to have an impact on minority careers, particularly those who didn’t have the same opportunities.”
It is up to these faculty leaders, department heads, deans, provosts, presidents, to cultivate the next generation of teachers, Barabino said. And within these power positions, the creation of inclusive environments and course tracks that interest underrepresented faculty, she said.
For example, women and minorities are disproportionately drawn to working in fields that have a societal impact; therefore, schools need to create a curriculum that allows for real world experiences.
Swan agrees with the need to incorporate real-life experiences into STEM education. He has instituted a service-learning pedagogical approach for the past 20 years. In this educational experience, students and professors act as partners within their local communities.
“The pedagogical approach makes that connection more explicit,” he said, and forms an attachment that some students will continue all the way through a doctoral program.
Another challenge facing the creation of a DEI faculty is having a diverse pool of students to pull from. While Swan admits that the needle hasn’t moved much overall in creating diversity in faculty, the numbers of underrepresented faculty in STEM have increased.
In order to continue building numbers, Swan says schools needs to reach out to students that may not even see themselves at instructors and showing them that it is a real possibility for a future.
Outside of universities, some national organizations are funding opportunities to build STEM interest among minority populations. For example, the National Science Foundation conducts research and releases reports on how colleges can support this underrepresented group.
Lessons Learned from COVID-19
Like every aspect of education, the pandemic has brought to light some systemic issues with regards to diversity and inclusivity in higher education.
“It [Covid-19] has so disproportionately impacted black and brown communities around health and wealth,” Barabino said. “So that in the future of STEM, we know we need to do a better job eliminating inequities. Inequalities are our biggest threat.”
Swan agrees that the pandemic has magnified some major changes that need to be made within academia—and society at large in the US.
“I hope that what we all take away from 2020 is how the systemic racism that exists in the US is holding all of us back,” Swan said. “If we can bring DEI in its fullest and strongest ways into higher education, and k-12 for that matter, then we can come closer to solving the problems behind racism.”