LAWRENCE — An interdisciplinary team of professors at the University of Kansas has received a $529,500 grant to improve student success and reduce achievement gaps in undergraduate science education.
The grant is part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence 3 initiative, which challenges U.S. colleges and universities to improve student belonging and student success, especially for students who have been historically excluded from the sciences. KU will join 13 other institutions as a part of a learning community supported by $8 million in grant funds. The universities will collaborate on projects intended to make the content of introductory science courses more inclusive. The collaboration will focus on five overlapping areas: continuing education, inclusive curricula, student empowerment, inclusive collaboration and broader approaches to institutional transformation. A fundamental goal of the learning community is to shift institutions from deficit-based approaches that center on “fixing” students to achievement-oriented approaches that remove systemic barriers for historically underrepresented students.
The KU initiative, which began in November, is being led by Andrea Follmer (Greenhoot), a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, and Mark Mort, associate director at the teaching center and professor of ecology & evolutionary biology. The team also includes faculty members from the departments of Chemistry, Geology, Physics & Astronomy and Mathematics as well as the Undergraduate Biology Program. Additional project support will come from the KU Center for Teaching Excellence and the office of Analytics, Institutional Research & Effectiveness, along with an advisory panel that includes KU faculty members who have scholarly expertise in diversity, equity and inclusion.
KU’s effort will analyze the cross-department components of science programs and identify areas for innovating teaching methods and course content. The team will use data on learning and student success to study how students move through introductory science and math courses. A central goal is to identify curricular barriers and opportunity gaps for underrepresented students, who often have inequitable access to high-quality STEM learning experiences before college. These activities will inform adjustments in the ordering and content of the courses students are required to take to help them make clearer connections from one course to another.
“I’m excited to use data to find out where are the barriers for our students,” Mort said. “When we know where the barriers are we can use inclusive pedagogy to shift to an achievement mindset rather than a deficit mindset to help students move through those barriers.”
The grant will help build on a decade of work at KU to transform large, introductory STEM courses with student-centered approaches known to improve learning for all students, Mort said.
The KU team also plans to develop a set of common problems centering on pressing community and societal issues that will be embedded in multiple introductory science and math courses. The common problems will allow students to learn how different disciplines approach real-world problems in such areas as water, pollution and sustainable energy. This approach will help students learn and apply core skills and concepts across courses and disciplines. It will also bring more socially relevant content into the science curriculum, a strategy that is known to foster greater connection to science among underrepresented students.
Follmer said, “I see an opportunity for students in general to do more academic work that enables them to find a sense of purpose in the learning and in their education, which I think is needed right now, especially for students who have historically been excluded from STEM.
“Adopting a more achievement, growth-oriented mindset about our students and our degree programs is going to benefit everybody in the system. I think this will support greater equity and a greater sense of belonging among students. And those outcomes will also be incredibly rewarding for instructors.”