Boosting diversity, equity and inclusion in the classroom starts small and potentially ends big.
How big and how do you make it work without disruption?
Answers came during the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering’s IEEE-funded project on inclusive teaching in STEM.
Nathan Ensmenger, associate professor and Informatics graduate director, and Akesha Horton, director of curriculum and instruction, established a program to find small changes that could lead to a more inclusive teaching environment, produce better informed and equipped faculty, improve course syllabi and lesson plans, and create guidelines to illustrate the techniques and processes needed to develop more inclusive course materials.
Their project came via the IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity, through its Computer Society Diversity & Inclusion Fund. It was inspired by James Clear’s personal-growth book, Atomic Habits, which suggests that small changes in daily behavior allow people to improve 1 percent each day.
The project consisted of five faculty and five students. It included a partnership between faculty and graduate students in devising inclusive teaching materials.
Ph.D. student Haily Merritt was part of the program as an assistant instructor. She wanted to incorporate inclusion and diversity into her skills-based computational methods course, which helps students develop specific skills, such as mastering Python, and applying them to projects.
During the semester, students built programming models of cognitive scientific ideas. Merritt had students discuss their projects with the rest of the class, focusing on what they did well and what areas showed creativity.
“That allowed everyone to see that all of them have something to offer, all of them can teach others something despite the discrepancies in skills and experience,” she said.
The project-sharing approach was a unique way to make an educational impact, Merritt said.
“Some students already had excellent programming skills. For them, it was less about how well this person codes and more about how creative they were, and how they framed this. It showed the creativity you can have if you continue to build your skills.”
Merritt also sought to add a human element to the skills-based course. At the start of the semester, she had broad discussions of students’ backgrounds and expectations. She wanted to build relationships to reduce anxiety and foster learning by helping them, “start from a place of confidence instead of making them aware of what they didn’t know or where they didn’t have experience.”
Moving forward, Merritt said she’ll have students write down their goals and expectations at the start of the semester, and evaluate that at semester’s end.
“It will give them a chance to reflect on all the growth they made. What did you learn? What are you most surprised you learned? What skill are you most proud that you developed?”
Merritt also wants to set up office hours to help ensure students have the skills they need so no one feels like they’re struggling or falling behind.
Ensmenger used the project for his Information Study lecture class that focuses on the historical and social aspects of computing. He said for every lecture, he’d ask if there was a different historical case study he could use that would accomplish the same academic goal, but reflect greater diversity. The result -- he introduced more African American inventors, female computer scientists, LGBTQ figures and other under-represented groups into his lectures.
“The process was easy and often interesting to me as a scholar,” he said.
Samantha Wood, assistant professor of Informatics, used it to devise an inclusive lesson plan for debugging. The lesson plan showed how to engage more students in the debugging process by allowing them multiple means of accessing support for classroom help.
Other curriculum changes that came from the project included implementing a multi-part interactive syllabus to create a feedback loop and strong connections with students, and developing annotated sample lesson plans that show techniques and process needed to develop more inclusive course materials.