Being Human in STEM

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


Five science faculty are leading a course called “Being Human in STEM.” It’s the first time the course has been taught at a public university. For their final project, students in the class surveyed peers about their experiences at the U and, in a candid conversation, shared what they learned with President Ruth Watkins. Recorded on Thursday, April 9, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome everyone and thank you so much for the opportunity to join you. I really appreciate it. This is going to be a high point of my day. I'm very interested in learning a little bit more about your class. It sounds like such an interesting opportunity. Give me a little bit of background and an overview of what you've been doing this semester.

Becca: Yeah, of course. Hi, I'm Becca and I'm a math student. So, this course was a bunch of STEM students here at the U and focused on studies and discussions about various diversity and inclusivity topics and issues. It's the newest class at the U, I guess, for this type of a class.

It started at Amherst college about four years ago and spread throughout universities in the Northeast, including Yale and Brown University. This is the first time it's being taught at a public university, so that's kind of exciting for us.

We focused on identities during the semester with discussion and research papers, primarily like race and sexual orientation, gender, economic status, disability, and a lot of others, as well. And kind of how they affect the learning environment for STEM students here at the U.

President Watkins: I'd love to hear a little bit about how you think this class has influenced the way you think about STEM and about your experience. I did not realize that this was the first time this class had been taught at a public university. So, that's interesting. It'd be interesting to compare, actually, across different types of institutions, whether some of the same themes are emerging.

Tell me a little bit about some of the big things you've learned. And, perhaps, I understand that one of the signature pieces of this class has been this end of semester project. I'd put you in that direction and I’d love to hear more.

Logan: I'm Logan. I'm a physics major. We've been working on a really cool project and as part of this project we wanted to learn about students. And so, when I joined this class, I had a desire to make a positive impact on our campus community. But I need a direction and I wanted to better understand the needs of my fellow students. That's what our project is focused on. But for me, this class has really highlighted many of the inequities in the resources available to students with different backgrounds. And as a religious student, I have been interested in the needs of students of different religious persuasions to have accommodations.

For example, I learned that the only place to pray on campus is at the Union, and this is a challenge for our Muslim students who pray five times a day, forcing them to run all over campus between classes. Additionally, Muslim students have a hard time finding food on campus that aligns with their dietary restrictions. And this is a major challenge for them in completing a STEM degree. I've also learned that women in STEM are heavily impacted by these inequities. Women are underrepresented in the STEM colleges across campus. And Utah has the lowest percentage of women in STEM in the workforce of all the states.

Kira: I'm Kira. I'm a math student. This class taught me that so many students are negatively impacted by this expectation that they must leave their identities at the door when they walk into their STEM classrooms. Time and time again, we see that this attitude benefits white, affluent, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled men, while simultaneously harming all underrepresented students. And this helped me realize where I was in my own math classes, that my queer identity is relevant and is allowed to be seen.

I had hoped to share some statistics on queer students in STEM at the U, but this is such a grossly under-researched area that I couldn't find any. So, what I did find was a recent study on queer professional scientists across America, which revealed that 70% of the scientists believe that discussion of queer identities in the workplace was unprofessional even though analogous discussions by cisgender heterosexual scientists is completely routine. So queer people deserve better. We should be able to bring our full identities into the classroom and workplace.

Selena: Hi, I'm Selena and I'm a geology student. As a woman of color in STEM, everything we've learned about in this class has really been validating for my personal experiences and feelings. Since being in this class, I feel a lot more solid in my science identity, which is something that I've struggled with in the past, and my self-confidence has really grown. I've also learned so much about different identities, such as disability status and sexual orientation and the struggles that accompany these identities in relation to pursuing STEM. It's been so awesome to create friendships with these other STEM students and faculty who are also caring about these issues. This class has been very impactful to me and I will always hold onto what I've learned.

President Watkins: Very, very powerful insights that you have just expressed Logan, Kira, Selena. I really appreciate that. And one of the things that's most interesting to me about this is I've been at this now for a while, like 30 years, 31 years in higher ed. If I count graduate school, it would be since '85. And it's amazing to me how both awareness has changed, dialogue has changed, but some of the core issues of inclusion and inclusivity remain the same. And I think for years we've talked about women in STEM fields and worked on things like advanced grants. And the concerns and the issues that you are pointing to, there's a common thread that has run for the 31 years I've been paying attention as an assistant professor all the way through. And I think the kind of work you're doing in this class will allow us to do better and to do more. So, Corey, tell me a little bit about your end of semester project.

Corey: Okay. So, hi. I'm Corey and I'm a computer science student. A big part of the Being Human in STEM class is typically the end of semester project that we as students get to work on. We really wanted to learn more about the undergraduate STEM climate at the U, so we decided to survey current students. Our whole recruiting process lasted a bit longer than two weeks, beginning on the 27th of February. And we put up flyers, advertised on social media, and asked a bunch of our friends in STEM to fill it out.

In the end, we collected 48 qualitative responses from students across the College of Science, the College of Engineering, and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences. We would have gone further and followed up with some students of interest to learn more, but then COVID-19 happened and we had to adapt a little bit. And now here we are speaking with you. I don't think any of us could have predicted being here at the start of the semester or even a few weeks ago.

We knew when we started this class that our project would be something a bit big, but it is truly amazing that we ended up here. We're really excited to be speaking with you, the president of our university, directly about the concerns STEM students at the U have and want heard.

President Watkins: Yes, I so appreciate the chance to hear from you and the remarkable effort that you've put into place. And I guess just as a small editorial here, if you ever needed a little impetus for why studying a STEM field matters, you've got it right now with coronavirus and COVID-19. We are all seeing the importance of the value of science that helps us understand particularly viruses and biological phenomenon, how we're going to get from where we are to treatments and vaccines. And it's the scientists that are going to lead the way and the scientists that are helping us develop models. So, thank you for staying in the fields you're in and for working through it. So, sounds like you uncovered some themes in the survey that you want to talk about a little bit.

Selena: The student responses from the survey have been really amazing. We've gained a lot of valuable insights from those responses and we'll share a few quotes followed by some questions for you. One of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences students from our survey said, "As the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents who is first generation, low income, and bilingual, I've often felt alone in my experiences in STEM at the U. I often don't see students with a background similar to mine and sometimes I feel uncomfortable when I'm the only student who appears to have a different skin color."

This quote is only one example that we have received from the survey we collected. Based on research articles we have read and the survey responses, we have come to realize how fundamental student identities really are to classroom success. Often students will just accept non-inclusive classroom environments because they believe that is just the way things are. So, from your point of view, what do you think STEM students deserve in their classrooms and how should they expect their professors to treat them?

President Watkins: What a great quote and a great question. I would say effective teaching, good teaching, is inclusive teaching. So those things must go together. And students have the right to expect that. There are a few things that I think we’ve both worked on and made progress on and some areas as an institution that we need to continue to improve.

One of the things I know is it's difficult—it's hard to be what you can't see. Having a more diverse faculty and staff makes a difference. And it makes a difference in our inclusive practices and also creates a model for people that they belong and that they can see themselves in the university. When I go and talk to industry employers in the Salt Lake Valley, every single time they will say to me—Adobe, for example—my first visit to Adobe, the leadership at Adobe said, "President Watkins, we will not be able to keep our headquarters here if you are not producing more diverse graduates from the University of Utah. We are creating products and selling products and solving problems for a global and diverse world. We need that representation in your engineers, in your science graduates, in your psychology graduates, in all of your fields."

 

So clearly this is a responsibility of the university. We've had a faculty hiring initiative to increase diversity in our faculty. That work must continue. That's one of the core ways. Representation is not enough alone to ensure inclusive teaching, but it certainly helps and without it it's very difficult to go forward. I would also say a few other things that we've done include investing in training. In fact, one of the positive things about a moment like we're having right now is getting up an inclusive training platform that we are moving towards requiring for all faculty and staff. It's called Get Inclusive and we're just about to roll it out across the institution and over the next year ask that every single person who's employed at the university participates in the Get Inclusive training

There's a version for students, as well. Right now, we're already more advanced in what training students receive and participate in. We need to get this to be a ubiquitous part of the university for faculty and staff. Thanks for that great question, Selena.

Selena: Thank you.

Logan: We had students in our survey talk about how positively they were impacted by their STEM professors. A physics student said, "I went up to the board in one class to try to solve a problem and it was so wrong, it was almost comical. I was overwhelmed and wanted to go hide in a corner. My professor guided me through the problem, and I was able to sit down, but I was very upset by the failure. After the class he told me that I was doing the right thing. 'It's hard,' he said, 'and you're asking questions and trying to understand. That is how you learn. Not by sitting passively and watching others solve things. Keep trying, you'll get it.' I don't think you have any idea how much I needed those words that day. Every time I struggle now, I just remember that he believed I could do it and the need to embrace the scary part of struggling.

Corey: But not all students had the same experience. One civil engineering student responded, "Oh, please, please just treat us like the young adults we are. We're not robots. We're expected to be young professionals with complex lives and full-time students at the same time. It's two full-time jobs. Please give us the resources we need for your class. Please give us ethical grading scales and feedback so we can see our grades and know how to improve them if we'd like to take the initiative. I'm not paying $1,000 a class to get frustrated, become lost and confused about the material, develop an acute mental disorder, never get to see my family."

So our question for you is when a student feels that a STEM class is poorly or even a harmfully structured or implemented, how can they make their concerns known in a way that feels safe for them and how can they get support so they can still perform well in their STEM class, whether that means switching out or finding a new way forward?

President Watkins: One of the big challenges of a large university and a complex university, certainly we are proud of our stature as one of America's leading research universities and that we're part of that group of great institutions. We will not always have uniform quality and uniform delivery in what we do. We have fabulous teachers and Logan and Corey, you just kind of highlighted that. We're going to have remarkable people. We're also going to have people that are remarkable in some facets of their job and not uniformly remarkable at all parts of their job. It is an institutional responsibility to demonstrate our commitment to and value in teaching, so what can we all do about that

I would say, on the part of university leaders, having a robust investment in a strong teaching and learning center where people can improve their teaching when they need to and want to, and using that as part of our criteria for how we hire and how we promote and reward people is important. We want to reward the faculty that are doing things like what Logan talked about. And really make that clear that that's a value in our institution. Very, very important.

I think from a student's perspective, what can you do? Certainly, it is important to speak up and express your concerns when you feel something is not being taught correctly, taught well, taught effectively, and taught inclusively. What's the best way for you to do that? I think first stop is the person themselves. I know when somebody has a concern about me, I surely appreciate it when they tell me and not my boss or my boss's boss or something like that. It's far better—and, of course you want to do this constructively—but to speak to a faculty member and say, "I'm having trouble learning this way. This is difficult for me. Have you thought about this? Or where could I go for help?"

I think if that is not successful or effective, then it's appropriate to talk with the chair, an academic advisor, and, in particular, if you feel that there are really inappropriate things happening that are discriminatory or harassing, then of course [reach out to] the Office of Equal Opportunity. I always think that it's the most effective thing to try the local solution first and then move beyond that if you're not effective.

The other thing I would say is people are a little bit different. It's interesting to me and I get to talk to a lot of students and some students will love a particular instructor and find them to be highly effective and other people will find that person to be not very effective. So, it isn't really a one-size fits all. So one thing that students can and should do is try to gain information about themselves from their peers, from their advisors, from their department, about what the best fit is for them and to feel empowered both to express themselves and their concerns and to feel like making the change is fine.

The other thing I would say is I want students to know that course evaluations matter. We read them. We pay attention to them. It's worth taking the time to fill out a course evaluation. That's another way that your voice is heard. Admittedly, it's often for the people that are following you, but it does matter. So, thank you. Good question.

Kira: Several students from the survey commented about active learning strategies. One student is currently taking a math class that is flipped, meaning that students learn the material outside of class and primarily do practice problems during class time. They said, "I really appreciate the balance of out-of-class learning and in-class practice. It is really helpful to come to class prepared with questions, so that I leave feeling more solid in the material than when I entered."

So, I know you already spoke a little bit about this inclusive teaching initiative, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about it and specifically what you're doing to promote active learning and evidence-based teaching for the STEM faculty at the U.

President Watkins: I think all of us know this from our own experiences, and I certainly know it as a person who gives a lot of public talks and presentations. I feel like I've developed very good skills at reading my audience. Some faculty are great at that, some faculty are not so great at that. But engaging actively and participating is a powerful learning experience. And I know from my own experiences that when you try to talk at people or have a lengthy PowerPoint and it's all passive learning, it is very ineffective. People have maybe 10 minutes that they can actually pay attention. And after that, they can't. I mean it's physiologically impossible for people to stay with you, even if you're kind of entertaining. You have to have things that engage people, that reset the clock in attention, and get people moving in that direction

So, I think the best methods we have—you also have to realize that many of our faculty, and I'm looking around at the faculty colleagues that are here, had the same mixed experiences with education that you're describing. So many of us were taught in a very passive approach, a very lecture, note-taking, passive kind of way. It isn't necessarily surprising that faculty re-enact teaching and learning the way they experienced it.

So probably the most effective thing we can do is provide that sort of education training, learning about effective education for every incoming faculty member. And not just once, but to continue to do it through our teaching and learning center. What we don't do very well is require people to do that. And we probably should move toward a more ... you have continuing education learning opportunities about effective teaching throughout your career. That's one effort that I think would work. The other one is to really enact using effective teaching and participation in new learning about teaching as part of how we evaluate faculty and how we promote faculty.

Becca: That's awesome. Thank you. Throughout our survey, many students commented about anxiety. Specifically, a quote from a civil engineering student, they said, "I'm serious when I say that I gained feelings of acute chronic anxiety because of this class. I didn't feel like I was being treated like a human. I felt like a machine."

I've learned a lot about the resources that students have as part of this course that we didn't know about—many of which I think could greatly improve the [well-being of] STEM students here at the U. Our question is, how do you think we could better connect STEM students to the resources across campus?

President Watkins: I think it's a great question, Becca, and it's a question I think is maybe particularly relevant in STEM, but I actually think it's relevant all over the campus. When you look at national trends about anxiety and depression in college-age students, those trends have increased dramatically in the past 10 to 20 years. Very significant portions of students report anxiety, report levels of depression. It's startling. It's startling to me and it's very concerning. What have we done about that at the University of Utah and what more could we do? I think that is really your question.

One of the things that we have done is embed some counseling support and resources at the college level. I know that we've done that in the College of Science, for example. We have great leadership in that college with the new dean. And there are some direct workshops for students about managing anxiety and depression than have been offered in the College of Science. I think maybe College of Engineering is where we ought to go next based on your quote and that question.

A couple of other things I want to mention. We are so honored and privileged to have the partnership of the Huntsman family in helping us to create the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. One of the strands of that institute is a focus on college-age students. Many difficulties with mental health emerge during the college years. In fact, the highest incidents of emergence of mental health problems is between the ages of 18 and 25. When you look at those data you say, "If we want to effectively support well-being and mental health, we need to do it during the college years." What we're doing on our campus is starting an effort to look at new ways of supporting students' mental health.

And I personally think that the old model of one counselor, individual appointments with students, isn't going to be as effective. We need more of a prevention model and a proactive approach. There are a couple of things in the works right now at the U. One is an online module about mental well-being that a couple of psychologists and some of our students are creating that every student can participate in. It's much more oriented toward prevention, but it's also oriented toward what are the resources available to you on campus. And I think that might be quite helpful in this particular case of meeting some of those needs that you're talking about.

It's important I think for every student to have an overview of mental health and well-being, much as we do about physical health and well-being. It's the same thing. And I think to do it in a more proactive format that's prevention oriented would be so smart for our institution. I hope we can become a leader in this area through the help and support of the Huntsman family.

Becca: Yeah, that'll be awesome. I hope to see it go forward. It'll be great.

President Watkins: Yeah. We'll try. And perhaps the College of Science could be a good pilot for us and maybe science and engineering together. Oh ,and I will not forget Mines and Earth Sciences, either, since you've drawn them into your survey, as well.

You're pretty spectacular people, faculty and students alike. I know almost all of you from running into you in different places around campus and just interacting with you. I'm really, really impressed with what you've done. I hope if it's allowable that, perhaps, I don't know if there's going to be any kind of a written format of what you learned in this survey, but I'm wondering if it would be possible for me to get a copy because I could learn a lot from it and make use of it. I'm seeing thumbs up, so you think you'd let me get a written copy? That'd be great.

Logan: We're planning on writing a report, as the students of the class, on what we've learned and what insights we've gained, and we'd be happy to share that with you once we get it done.

President Watkins: That's great. I think that's spectacular. And isn't it kind of amazing what you can do by Zoom because who would know that you accomplished all this?

Becca: Definitely. Also, at the end of the semester we're going to be having a symposium and we've invited some of the deans from the College of Science to talk with us, and then also we're going to open it up to people on campus. Anyone can join the Zoom call.

President Watkins: That's good. You know, one thing I really want to applaud you for, it's probably tempting to just pick out the problematic areas. The way that you framed this conversation was really helpful for me because there are some things that are going pretty well that there are examples of positives that are really working well because that actually helps inform the “What do we do about the things that are really a problem? And if you just go right to the problem, it's just kind of hard to start to say, "Wow." You see some bright lights from the faculty member, for example, that Logan gave the example of really helping a student with a difficult problem and helping the student feel okay about not knowing what to do.

So, I like your approach of here's the way it can go well, here's where it's breaking down. Now let's try to bridge.

Becca: Thank you.

President Watkins: Thank you. All right. I think I might have to go to my next Zoom meeting.

Becca: We appreciate your time. Thank you.

President Watkins: I love how everybody's wearing red, too. Good job! Thank you all so much. Thank you for great work. I appreciate it. It's fun for me. Thank you.

Logan: Thank you.

Becca: Thank you, president.