University, Community Colleges Partner for More Inclusive STEM Education

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two women talking in a science lab

The University of Wyoming (UW) and five community colleges in the state are building a faculty network to share best practices and make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education more inclusive. 

The partnership program is made possible through a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence 3 (IE3) grant. The grant will provide $8 million over six years to allow the institutions to develop learning communities through long-term partnerships. 

Faculty across participating institutions will create multidisciplinary networks to share best practices in inclusive STEM education. These relationships will also be cultivated through various projects and initiatives. The goal of the program is to make STEM education more accessible and inclusive for underrepresented students, especially those from rural backgrounds.

“Nurturing transdisciplinary scholarship is perhaps the most powerful thing that we can do to support diversity, equity, and inclusion goals within higher education.” 

Rachel Watson, EdD

IE3 will also help expand research and educational capacity at two-year institutions, which generally serve more diverse populations such as student parents, adult learners, and racially underrepresented students. Participating institutions include UW, Northwest College (NWC), Eastern Wyoming College, Western Wyoming Community College, Laramie County Community College, and Casper College. 

“These learning communities will be implemented, facilitated, and assessed based upon best practices,” says Rachel Watson, EdD, director of UW’s Science Initiative Learning Actively Mentoring program and leader of Wyoming’s IE3 program. “We predict that these learning communities will enhance social networks, decrease feelings of isolation, and decrease implicit bias.”

The IE3 initiative will function similarly to a pilot program instituted by UW and NWC in July 2022. Through that program, educators shared ideas and explored ways to ensure inclusiveness in pedagogy and research. The training focused heavily on promoting transdisciplinary research methods by utilizing experts from differing academic backgrounds and seeking input from community stakeholders.

“Nurturing transdisciplinary scholarship is perhaps the most powerful thing that we can do to support diversity, equity, and inclusion goals within higher education across the state of Wyoming,” says Watson. “Transdisciplinarity gains its research power by inviting scholars of diverse backgrounds — from math and science to agriculture and art — and from all walks of life to come together to solve the world’s problems. It acknowledges that we will not progress on these problems if we do not have all diverse identities, disciplines, and ideas around the table.”

A transdisciplinary approach to STEM education has proven beneficial to NWC students, particularly rural students, because it introduces them to career paths and fields of study they are unaware of or consider unattainable, says Eric Atkinson, PhD, biological sciences associate professor at NWC.

“The analyses have shown that when students have this inclusive view toward their academics, they’re much more successful, and it becomes much more holistic; they internalize it and understand concepts much better,” he says.

As part of the UW-NWC pilot program, educators from both schools met for a daylong retreat to discuss institutional barriers and how they limit inclusion in STEM education. Similarly, the IE3 program will feature a Learner Showcase at NWC during the spring semester that will highlight diverse research and provide opportunities for educators to discuss inclusion in research.

This article was published in our March 2023 issue.