In the fall of 2019, the Black Student Union at Cal State Fullerton held a forum to talk about the campus climate, and the organization invited faculty, staff, administrators and students, says Marcos Ortega, assistant professor of biochemistry and a member of the recently launched Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee in the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics.
“Many students expressed that they were seen but not really ‘seen.’ They felt they were at times either overlooked or overly noticed due to their race,” Ortega says. “That really made an impact on Dean [Marie] Johnson. From that conversation came an understanding of opportunities to address issues that caused this sense of isolation and to foster greater acceptance and involvement throughout our campus community.”
Fifteen faculty and staff members agreed to work together to understand and address how students feel within the college and on campus.
Members of the DEI committee are examining and reflecting critically on issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, identity, privilege, and racism impacting students at the college and in the larger STEM community. The committee’s objective is to then use these reflections to inform the practices of faculty, staff, and administrators in order to fulfill the college’s core mission of providing an inclusive, excellent education in its classrooms and research groups. Members have committed to examine these issues with an open and inquiring mind, much like they engage with their chosen disciplines of mathematics and science.
“It’s easy to think about science or math as just facts and figures, but so many parts of the theoretical and experimental process need thinking outside the box, and that’s also what we have to do here,” says Gina Passante, an associate professor of physics and another member of the DEI committee. “Having a degree in science or mathematics is a huge stepping-stone to important careers, and it’s important to make sure we have a society being run by the people who live in it. Giving educational access to students from a broader, diverse community gives them that power.”
Starting the Conversation
If everyone approaches a problem in the same way, there are no opportunities for innovation. Yet, statistically, there continues to be a striking lack of diversity in the fields of science, technology, and mathematics which precludes a significant source of innovative problem-solving.
“There are many areas of science where there is a lot of room for creativity, but if we’re excluding a large population from these fields, we’re limiting ourselves,” Passante says.
“Especially in places like our college, if we’re not teaching all students, we will suffer as a society,” adds Ortega. “We need to reframe the conversation and think about the future. This requires reflection on how we’ve contributed to this environment. It’s a hard conversation, but being equal doesn’t necessarily mean treating everyone the same.”
As a professor, says Passante, it’s easy to take your experience with the “loud” students in a class – those unafraid to openly and regularly express both their understanding of the material, as well as their questions or concerns – and assume the experience of other students is the same.
“What we’re finding is that there are many ‘hidden’ students in our classes, and by showing faculty these data, we hope to convince everyone that there are things we can do to help,” Passante says. “As faculty, we need to make students feel that we believe in them and that we’re giving them every opportunity to succeed.”
Identifying Areas of Opportunity
The subcommittee Passante is part of created a faculty survey that asked respondents to gauge how well their department is doing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The subcommittee also created a student survey, which received 350 responses, asking about their experiences in the college, if they felt accepted or excluded, how they perceived themselves as math or science majors, and how they felt they were perceived by faculty and peers.
Students rated statements like, “I am confident in my ability to do an excellent job on an exam,” “Faculty and instructors encourage my participation,” and “I have felt socially isolated in the lab.”
“We asked students their majors and how far along they are in their college careers so we could see if students respond differently based on where they are in their college experience,” Passante says. “We also asked open-ended questions like ‘What has helped you succeed in your undergraduate experience?’, for which many students cited our intervention and transfer student programs. And we asked explicitly if there were any barriers to their success.”
“Innovation stems from people applying different life experiences, backgrounds, talents, and understandings to these challenges.”
– Marcos Ortega, assistant professor of biochemistry and DEI committee member
The subcommittee is in the process of analyzing all of the student and faculty responses.
“We want to identify clear areas we can improve, ways to create more confidence-building experiences instead of practices that bring students down,” Passante says. “We’ll never be perfect, but we’re looking for areas we can improve incrementally and will recommend workshops for faculty to improve their practice.”
A Scientific Approach to Student Success
Because mathematicians and scientists may be resistant to a purely psychological approach, Ortega says it’s important to present a clear problem to focus on – in this case, that an equity gap exists and addressing it will benefit all students.
The subcommittee Ortega is part of focuses on large-enrollment classes students take early in their college careers. This group is developing more inclusive practices that can be implemented in these types of classes across all departments. These include writing more inclusive and engaging syllabi, taking attendance every day, implementing a “growth mindset” that acknowledges to students that the work is hard but that they have opportunities to grow, and increasing the amount of low-stakes activities like problem sets and quizzes versus just high-stakes exams.
Ortega is also participating in a National Science Foundation-funded grant project focused on retention and graduation. He says that by engaging faculty in these tough, reflective conversations, they’re connecting the dots and planting the seeds for progress.
“We need faculty’s buy-in to change the culture. So we’re having conversations about how we select research students – are we only selecting A students, and is that benefitting everyone?” Ortega says. “How are we mentoring students? Who are our strongest faculty mentors and how can we replicate their approach?”
Ortega says the current societal climate seems to offer opportunities for more openness and a willingness to push DEI initiatives forward. This includes improving representation at the faculty and administration levels so that students see people who look like them achieving success, something Ortega says Cal State Fullerton’s president, provost, and deans have been very open to discussing.
“In all of this, we have to take the long view. You need every lens when it comes to solving complex problems – like that of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Innovation stems from people applying different life experiences, backgrounds, talents, and understandings to these challenges,” Ortega says. “You can’t expect to teach the same way they did 100 years ago, otherwise we’d be going in circles. Making progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion means hearing things you may not want to hear but understanding that they have value and that there are countless benefits to having more people in the room.”