Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment in STEM courses

Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment in STEM courses

Spring 2023
Photo of Siobhan Meï
Siobhan Meï
Area of Study
Information and Computer Sciences
Email Address

Supporting international students and minoritized students to succeed within Computer Science and Informatics is a primary concern of Siobhan Meï and colleagues in the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS). Read more about how she creates an inclusive and transformative learning environment in her junior year writing course. 


What is important to know about your teaching context?      

CICS is a very large college with a large undergraduate population. There are a lot of different career pathways for students with a computer science or informatics degree. We have a lot of students from around the world and within the United States. In some ways this is quite a diverse population; however, historically there are systemic barriers to getting into and staying in CICS that disfavor women, trans, non-binary, Black, Brown, Latinx, and indigenous people. Our challenge in CICS—and more broadly in STEM—is to attract and retain curious and excited learners. 

I teach a junior year writing course in CICS which is meant to expose students to different genres and audiences that are directly related to their discipline. My colleague Michelle Trim originally designed the course, and I am indebted to her intellectual labor in creating activities and assignments that help students understand the ways in which writing can address (and perhaps even work to dismantle!) systems of power. To this end, one of our goals in the course is to assist students in their critical analysis skills to better understand the way technology and tech corporations impact our social world. [Read more about Professor Meï’s course in her 2022 scholarship of teaching and learning study with Professors Trim and Obara]. 

How do you approach creating an inclusive teaching environment?  

Contextualizing the Learning Environment 

Globally contextualizing any case studies or histories discussed in class with an awareness of how pervasive US-centrism is and defining terms is really important for creating an environment where everyone can come to the table and talk. I spend a decent amount of time making sure we share foundational understandings of key concepts (such as systemic oppression) by first asking students to define terms that come up. I often say that though we’re speaking in English in this classroom, this concept can look different in different languages and in different cultural and socio-historical spaces. I’ve found that this linguistic framing helps lower students' anxieties and emphasizes that what’s true in one place may look quite different in another. Locating US social history within a global context opens the door for comparative critical work that many of our students already are familiar with as they come to our course with a variety of life experiences and linguistic competencies to draw upon when thinking through how power (and thus access to resources) stratify, often differently, the social worlds we inhabit.  

Exploring Issues of Power 

Second, early on we do a lot of work in thinking about our fields, how stereotypes intervene, and issues of power. An early assignment asks students to think critically about the relationship between consumers of technology and technological corporations, for example (Trim, Meï & Obara, 2022). While students are often willing to accept that social problems such as ableism are pervasive in tech development and design, in this unit we want students to move beyond acceptance toward action: what does user advocacy through writing practice look like in a tech workplace? And how is audience awareness essential to envisioning productive change? I want students to be able to listen to the people targeted; in the case of this assignment, people living with addiction or people with accessibility issues. This ability to listen to others is a professional skill they need to develop because diverse voices are not considered in the production of many technologies. Students need to be able to listen if they are going to be able to innovate, create, and work in computer science in an ethical way.  

Listening to Peers to Empower  

Finally, I reiterate the importance of listening within our classroom context. I want to facilitate a space where there is a lot of reflection, and students feel like they can talk to each other and process together. There is solidarity in processing. That is so important because the field of computer science can be so isolating. As one example, at the end of each unit, I have students put their devices away and form groups of roughly 8 people. Then, they have 30 seconds to silently reflect on one challenge they experienced in completing a particular unit deliverable, and one thing that they’re proud of.  It can be big or small, such as “I made it through this assignment” or “My time management was improved.” When it’s time to share, I emphasize how important it is to listen when someone else is telling them about themselves. And they do it. They listen to each other and build on each other’s ideas.  By the end of the course this type of reflection— a sort of pause and moment of solidarity— becomes pretty normal for them.  

How do you know you are successful in creating an inclusive teaching environment?  

I notice that women, international students, and non-binary students are contributors and active participants in class, and they are taken seriously in the classroom by their peers. They tell me privately that they never wanted to talk in a class before, that they were worried that they would say the wrong thing or be judged for their contributions. I also feel I am successful if my students come away with the ability to have an effective learning experience; if they feel proud or excited, or happy to see someone in class. Many students come away happy because they have developed friendships. We need joy in our learning environments, especially coming out of the pandemic. 

Whose work has been influential as you’ve developed your inclusive teaching mindset and philosophy? 

I am indebted to Michelle Trim for creating this curriculum, introducing me to this course, and helping me to teach it! She’s a huge advocate for students. I pull a lot from the work of bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress [e-book available from UMass libraries]. There is also a textile artist, scholar, and educator, Elsa Barkley Brown, who uses quilting as a framework for emphasizing the importance of local knowledge that I’ve found inspiring. I would love to connect with other STEM teachers who are working towards equity and inclusion in their courses. I’d love to continue to be in conversation and community with my peers.  

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