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MSU Leads $1 Million NSF Grant to Study Diversity in Classroom Instruction Materials

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Most scientists that students see in undergraduate educational materials do not reflect the diversity of researchers within the scientific community, nor do they match the identities of students using these resources. This has been shown to have negative effects on students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, leading to increasing dropout rates in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

Image of MSU postdocs Melissa Kjelvik and Elizabeth Schultheis .

MSU postdocs Melissa Kjelvik, Elizabeth Schultheis (pictured above, L to R) and Auburn University postdoc Ash Zemenick are working with MSU evolutionary ecologist Marjorie Weber (lead PI) to investigate how the inclusion of diverse scientist role models in science instruction affects attitudes toward quantitative learning exercises in STEM courses and careers. Courtesy photo

Researchers from Michigan State University and Auburn University are collaborating to better understand and address this situation. The team, led by MSU evolutionary ecologist Marjorie Weber, is using a $1 million NSF grant to study how inclusion of diverse scientist role models in science instruction affects student attitudes toward quantitative learning exercises in STEM courses and careers. MSU’s portion of the grant, which began Oct.1, is $480,255.

“It is important to determine which aspects of scientist role models are most impactful for students,” said Weber, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology in the MSU College of Natural Science. “Attracting diverse students into STEM careers is a national priority – our team wants to determine data driven methods for achieving this goal.”

Weber’s team will bring together Data Nuggets and Project Biodiversify, two innovative resources developed at MSU.

Image of Students using Data Nuggets materials in one of Paul Strode’s biology classes at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo.

Students using Data Nuggets materials in one of Paul Strode’s biology classes at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo. Credit: Paul Strode

Data Nuggets are free classroom activities, co-founded by MSU postdoctoral researchers Elizabeth Schultheis and Melissa Kjelvik – both of whom are part of the grant research team. When using Data Nuggets, students are provided with the details of authentic science research projects, and then get to work through an activity that gives them practice looking for patterns and developing explanations about natural phenomena using authentic scientific data from the study.

Project Biodiversify is a repository of teaching materials and methods aimed at enhancing human diversity and inclusivity in biology courses. The project was co-founded in 2017 by Ash Zemenick, formerly a postdoc in Weber’s Lab who is now a postdoc at Auburn University, and a member of the grant research team. Students and biologists exhibit a diverse set of backgrounds and identities. However, most biology students are not exposed to a diversity of role models in the field of biology, and many students are taught about biology in a way that, often unintentionally, is not inclusive to them or their communities.

“It’s exciting to bring together scientist role models with data literacy instruction,” Schultheis said. “Our work embodies a reformed instructor culture, where

Image of This figure from Project Biodiversify's blog post on Small Pond Science shows explicit and implicit biases act as a selective force against students from underrepresented or marginalized groups.

This figure from Project Biodiversify’s blog post on Small Pond Science shows explicit and implicit biases act as a selective force against students from underrepresented or marginalized groups. Made with figures modified from Western Michigan University, Fermi Lab and Your Article Library.

faculty members see teaching as a way to communicate to students that all types of people can be scientists.”

Recruitment of faculty members to participate in the study will be done through Auburn University under the direction of  biological sciences researcher Cissy Ballen. In addition, new data collected during the study will help inform how curricular resources can best integrate diverse scientist role models.

“One of the main products of this work will be new materials that specifically aim to share underrepresented scientists’ stories in a way that can be integrated directly into data literacy learning goals,” Kjelvik said.

Students in the study will be divided into three treatment groups. The first group will be given modified classroom activities, provided by Data Nuggets, that do not show the researcher. The second group will be given Data Nuggets that include photos of researchers from a diverse set of backgrounds. The third group will be given Data Nuggets, photos of the scientists, and scientist profiles from Project Biodiversify, which include background information and humanizing elements about the researchers.

The evaluative component of the project will measure three different metrics. First, quantitative reasoning instruments will be given at the beginning and end of each semester to measure student’s scientific and data literacy abilities. Student engagement instruments will then be given on a regular basis to determine the extent to which students are engaged with different materials. Last, self-identity instruments will be used to determine if students see themselves as scientists and as belonging to the scientific community.

“This work allows the team to build off the findings of their previous grant, which showed that students using Data Nuggets had increased perceived ability and confidence in their science abilities, and increased interest in STEM careers,” said Danny Schnell, professor and chair of the Department of Plant Biology. “We value diversity. This important work is critical to our mission as a department, to the university and to the country.”

Banner image: Educators participating in a Data Nuggets professional development workshop in Colorado Springs, Colo., as part of an efficacy study under a previous Data Nuggets grant. Credit: Elizabeth Schultheis

Story by the College of  Natural Science 

 

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