Only 16 percent of Latino, African-American and Native American students entering college will complete degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. That statistic (from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics) serves as a sobering reminder of the underrepresentation of minorities in STEM education and ultimately, the workforce.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and an exclusive selection of U.S. universities aim to significantly improve this percentage through the Inclusive Excellence Initiative. (IEI). Among those higher education institutions selected for the initiative is the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD)—the only Texas institution selected in 2018 to participate in this initiative.
IEI is focused on engaging students—from all cultural backgrounds—in STEM disciplines. These include students who are minorities, first-generation college students and working adults with families.
On June 20, HHMI announced 33 institutions of higher education that were awarded grants to support diversity and inclusion through this initiative. UHD’s proposal, among 594 applying institutions, was selected to receive $1 million to bolster inclusiveness, success and access for students in STEM education.
“Being selected for this initiative is a great honor for our University, our college, the students, staff, and faculty in the natural sciences,” said Dr. Akif Uzman, dean of the College of Sciences and Technology. “It also is a testament to our commitment to enhancing learning and promoting inclusive excellence for our students. We look forward to exploring new ways of incorporating inclusivity into our curriculum and helping more students succeed.”
Through IEI, faculty members in the natural sciences will engage in inclusivity training to promote cultural awareness. It also will redesign the learning environment to engage students in more campus-based educational opportunities.
“Research has shown that the longer a student remains on campus, the better he or she will perform academically,” said Dr. Jerry Johnson Jr., assistant vice president of Research and Sponsored Programs. “Because UHD is not a residential university, we are looking at how to maximize our students’ time on campus. Even if they are not in class, we want to provide resources to improve their learning.”
Both Johnson and Uzman agree that the completion of the forthcoming College Sciences and Technology Building (currently under construction) will facilitate an enhanced learning environment, which will include expansive study spaces and undergraduate research labs among many other amenities.
Another aspect of the initiative is redesigning STEM curriculum to facilitate student learning communities. According to Johnson, organic cohorts of students who naturally band together for study sessions and projects, tend to perform well academically. College faculty will focus on creating curriculum that will help foster these natural learning communities.
“Modifying instructor cultural awareness, the curriculum, and learning environment are essential to augmenting our academic ecology to further support student success,” Johnson said.
The IEI is a collaborative venture, wherein UHD will partner with other institutions selected for the initiative. A kick-off meeting with all participating IEI universities will take place July 30 – Aug. 2 in Washington D.C.
“In the spirit of IEI, one of our stated goals is to share our most successful practices from this program with our colleagues in the college and University,” said Uzman.
A UHD leadership team will steer the institution’s participation in the initiative. This team includes Dr. Lisa Morano, professor of biology; Dr. Rachna Sadana, associate professor of biology; and Dr. Adriana Visbal, assistant professor of biology. Dr. Danya Corkin, assistant professor of psychology, whose research largely focuses on STEM learning, will provide her expertise in assessing the success of this grant.
“Participating in the Inclusive Excellence Initiative complements our mission to deliver quality higher education experiences to underserved students in our city,” said UHD President, Dr. Juan Sánchez Muñoz. “I commend our College of Sciences and Technology faculty for undertaking this project and anticipate positive results from their hard work.”