UMass Amherst Receives $1 Million to Enhance STEM Learning, Inclusive Excellence

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AMHERST, Mass. – The College of Natural Sciences (CNS) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has received a five-year, $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to increase institutional capacity for inclusion of all science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors.

CNS researchers say the UMass Inclusive Excellence program in CNS will enhance the learning experience for life science students by transforming the learning environment and developing students professionally during their undergraduate years, with a focus particularly on the critical time period of entry into an undergraduate major and on sustained reinforcement of inclusive, high-impact teaching practices in later semesters.

Efforts at UMass will be led by Elizabeth Connor, CNS associate dean for undergraduate education and development, and will begin with faculty designing a first-year introductory biology laboratory experience and upper-level life science laboratory courses that are course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). By engaging students in a CURE in the first year, students will develop the interest and skills needed to succeed and persist in STEM majors. They will be able to reinforce these skills in subsequent upper-level CUREs designed specifically for their major.

HHMI President Erin O’Shea says bringing the diverse perspectives of nontraditional students into the science community is critical for achieving scientific excellence and finding creative solutions to difficult problems.

Now in its second year, the HHMI’s Inclusive Excellence initiative selected 33 colleges and universities to partner with it and the Association of American Colleges and Universities to help institutions focus on improving the environment for science students on their campuses. With 24 institutions named last year, there are now 57 participating in Inclusive Excellence. David Asai, HHMI senior director for science education, says that the goal is to understand how institutional change with respect to inclusion can be achieved at each participating institution.

The student CURE program will be supported by targeted faculty training in the teaching of CUREs and inclusive pedagogy, and by peer leaders and graduate teaching assistants trained to guide undergraduate teams in their research. Gabriela Weaver, special assistant to the provost for educational initiatives and a member of the project team, says that enveloping students in a learning community based on peer-led team learning improves the success of students, particularly those traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.

To facilitate idea sharing, they will join a Peer Implementation Cluster (PIC), a community of scientists drawn from four or five HHMI Inclusive Excellence schools. Project team member Jennifer Normanly, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, says the PIC is an opportunity for the UMass Inclusive Excellence team to both broaden the impact of the work at UMass as well as to learn from peer institutions.