How Do You Make STEM More Inclusive? Find Out How Two Wellesley Students Are Creating Change

Author  Josh Idaszak
Published on 

BISC116/CHEM116: Fundamentals of Chemistry and Molecular/Cellular Biology can be both engaging and challenging for first-year students. The course offers an interdisciplinary look at concepts such as the underlying molecular mechanisms of disease, how living systems use energy, and how pharmaceutical drugs work within the body. Team-taught by biology and chemistry faculty, its lab portion introduces all the necessary skills for biology, chemistry, and biochemistry lab work.

Biochemistry majors Valentina Alvarez ’22 and Julie Bocetti ’22 took the class as first-years and were hired as interns in fall 2019, as sophomores, to help their peers with course material by creating scientific activities and modules that focused on bridging the gaps between biology and chemistry. They also were asked to bolster the College’s efforts to make all students feel welcome in STEM classrooms and labs, regardless of their identity or their prior exposure to the sciences. Their internships were funded through the $1 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant the College received in 2018 to support inclusive excellence.

“Whether it was helping to develop classroom activities, p-set questions, or exam questions, as HHMI interns, we were trying to find a way to help students not only understand what they were being taught, but also understand what was being asked of them,” Alvarez said. “We were also exploring how to communicate the message that it didn’t really matter where they came from, or what their backgrounds were, or how little prior experience they had; they all had the potential to become scientists.”

Building a Curriculum

At the end of their first semester as interns, Adam Matthews, lecturer in biological sciences and one of the course’s teachers, showed Alvarez and Bocetti videos of prominent scientists from a range of backgrounds, including dance, literature, and ranching; he hoped that they might find a way to incorporate them into the course. Alvarez said she was intrigued and saw an opportunity to use the videos in activities to instill inclusive excellence.

“These scientists showed a breadth of trajectories,” she said. “Together, they demonstrated that you don’t necessarily have to follow the same path as everyone else. You don’t have to be stressed if you have to take an extra semester, or if you want to graduate early, or if you didn’t get an A in every class. What really matters is if you’re passionate about the science.”

Alvarez and Bocetti rewatched the videos and tinkered with possible discussion questions based on them, then started developing a curriculum for introductory STEM courses composed of two activities, one that would be presented at the beginning of the semester and one at the end.

For the first activity, their goal was to have students build an inclusive classroom community and to realize that it’s OK to not always have the right answer, especially at the outset of their Wellesley experience. They also wanted students to realize that they each had something to contribute, regardless of their background, and that everyone’s participation was critical to their success as a cohort.

“When you read about why certain communities of people don’t stay in STEM as much as others, it often has to do with there not being a sufficient sense of community,” Bocetti said. “So we were really focused on promoting community.”

For the second activity, they wanted students to reflect on their growth during the semester and the validity of different paths in their personal and career goals, and to understand that setbacks and struggle are a part of the process.

“We wanted to include the videos of people who studied science, loved it, and applied what they learned to something else,” Bocetti said. “We also wanted to include scientists who studied outside of STEM and then decided to pursue a science career. Overall, we wanted to encapsulate the different pathways of getting into science, and how you can apply STEM education to your life in many different ways.”

Both activities included questions for students to respond to individually, in small groups outside of class, and together during class time. Alvarez and Bocetti felt that layering the curriculum would allow students to reflect both individually and together over time, to see how their impressions changed. They also wanted to separate the activities, as each had distinct goals.

“Activity one is built around inclusivity and diversity, building community, and creating good discussion skills,” Alvarez said, “while the second activity is a lot more focused on perseverance, and remembering that it is OK to have different timelines than your peers. We wanted that message to come toward the end of the semester, when students are typically feeling more pressure.”

Alvarez and Bocetti pitched the completed curriculum to professors at Wellesley and were thrilled by their enthusiasm. Several faculty members included the curriculum in their STEM courses during the 2020–21 academic year. “It was exciting to get so much buy-in,” Alvarez said. “That really meant a lot. We were excited at how willing professors were to trust us and our work.”

“Although collaboration and inclusion are often included as learning goals for science programs, all too often they aren’t explicitly included in the curriculum,” said Don Elmore, Michael and Denise Kellen ’68 Chair in the Sciences and professor of chemistry, who worked closely with Alvarez and Bocetti as they planned their curriculum. “We wanted to ensure that they were. We felt it was critical to incorporate these discussions as early as possible in students’ course trajectory.”

“I think there’s a growing recognition that science is not just about hard science, and that it’s not all objective,” Bocetti said. “The experiences people bring with them influence the way we think about science. And I think that here at Wellesley that is something people really do believe. There are a lot of social implications of science and social influences on sciences. It’s important to open that door and let people know that you can talk about them, and that this is something professors at Wellesley care about.”

Matthews said this curriculum has helped students from all backgrounds feel welcomed and valued in introductory STEM classes. “It’s important to make space for these discussions, because they build community within the classroom, and they highlight the value of diverse perspectives and backgrounds,” he said. “Through these discussions, students often realize that their peers’ interpretation of the videos and reactions to the videos are very different from their own, and they grow to recognize the importance of not only sharing their own thoughts, but also listening to their peers’ thoughts and working collaboratively to learn from each other.”

“This is one of the most thorough curricular development and assessment projects I’ve encountered in the last few years,” said Elmore. “And it’s been driven by Julie and Valentina’s insight and dedication. From the start, I’ve been struck by the ownership they took for this.”

What’s Next

With their curriculum finished and incorporated in many of Wellesley’s introductory STEM courses, Alvarez and Bocetti have begun writing a report about their work and its impact, which they hope to publish in a scientific journal.

Over Wintersession, Bocetti finished a first draft focused on relating their learning goals to the prevailing views of the factors that determine what makes students stick with STEM. She will begin a research fellowship in the fall at the National Institutes of Health, and will be applying to Ph.D. programs in biochemistry and cell and molecular biology the following year.

Alvarez has applied to Ph.D. programs in biochemical and biomedical engineering; she is interested in studying therapeutics or drugs that help treat disease and illness and eventually becoming a professor. “I don’t really want to give up the research, and I really care about teaching,” she said. Working on this curriculum has helped her understand how she’d like to approach teaching in the future. “I want to work on creating inclusive environments,” she said. “I want to make places where people feel comfortable learning. It’s important to step outside your comfort zone, to be sure. Otherwise, you’re never going to learn. But you are also never going to learn if you’re always really scared to say the wrong thing.”