UMass students getting hands-on lab experience.
Equity and Inclusion

UMass Amherst Receives $2.5 Million from Howard Hughes Medical Institute to Reshape STEM Education

Five-year grant seeks to drive change throughout the university, support historically underrepresented students and create a lasting culture of inclusion

The University of Massachusetts Amherst was recently awarded a $2.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Driving Change initiative. Under the direction of Elizabeth Connor, UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences associate dean for undergraduate education and professor of biology, UMass Amherst, a predominately white institution, will seek to fundamentally reshape the STEM student experience by providing key STEM-related experiences to students to counter racial disparities while remediating institutional structural issues that currently hamper too many undergraduate STEM careers.

UMass students getting hands-on lab experience.
UMass students getting hands-on lab experience. The Driving Change initiative will expand these sorts of opportunities at the university.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Driving Change program aims to effect lasting culture change on research university campuses by creating a more inclusive learning environment for all. Its goal is to support undergraduate students, including people who have historically been excluded from science because of their background, so that they may excel in STEM and assume leadership roles in the field. The initiative encourages universities to take a comprehensive approach to culture change, which begins with an extensive self-study.

“Institutional change is the key phrase,” says Connor, “and it begins with a hard look in the mirror.”

The Driving Change team, which includes the deans of the College of Natural Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences and the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, conducted a year-long self-study to understand UMass Amherst’s past and present processes and barriers standing in the way of a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion-centered STEM education. Other core team members include Barb Chalfonte, associate provost of analytics and assessment; Leo Hwang, the College of Natural Sciences’ assistant dean of undergraduate education; and Tricia Serio, former provost.

“Too often,” says Connor, “the focus has been on ‘fixing the student,’” instead, the grant focuses on dismantling and reengineering institutional processes that lead to inequities and barriers at the university. “Many of our policies are decades old,” Connor says, “but our population and student body has changed, and our institution needs to catch up. We need to support our students and adapt UMass at the same time.” The grant also includes initiatives designed to provide underserved students with crucial STEM-related experiences that open doors to more opportunities and possibilities as they progress in their academic careers.

To do this, the UMass Driving Change team will pursue a host of initiatives, including wide-ranging equity-based reviews of university policies and procedures, such as the academic discipline process, early course registration and enrollment holds, all of which have a disproportionately negative effect on students of color. Students will also be included as participatory action researchers to help identify unfair policies and support their role in shaping equity-based approaches to STEM education.

A core part of the grant is to offer a suite of student-centered project activities, from implementing a new STEM mentoring program for incoming students to increasing course-based undergraduate research experiences—which gives undergraduates first-hand experience in conducting real, hands-on scientific research—and expansion of the current program of independent summer STEM research internships by offering 25 additional paid research fellowships and housing to first generation and historically underrepresented students.

“Using an equity lens will bring into focus the disparities that we have not addressed and help make access to a world-class STEM education more equitable for all,” says Connor. “We are excited to begin this work with HHMI, our students and colleagues at UMass Amherst.”