For Yue Chen, a brief conversation led to a deep moment of insight. A few years ago, the assistant professor in biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics was wrapping up teaching a biochemistry course when an international student approached him after the final exam, noting her issues understanding his lectures as a non-native English speaker. Chen, a non-native English speaker himself, walked away from the discussion with a deeper understanding of some of the hidden issues facing other international students in his classroom.
“I came to realize that students often do not come forward with their difficulties or problems, especially to the professors,” says Chen. “They would rather talk to their peers to solve the problem if they can. I believe that the best way to help the students, especially those with different cultural or academic backgrounds, is to give them an opportunity to promote peer-to-peer learning.”
This realization pushed Chen to take on a student-led study group project under the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Faculty Fellows for Inclusive Excellence program. This program, funded by a grant from HHMI, aims to help faculty in the College of Biological Sciences pursue projects or research that increase inclusivity in the classroom or on campus. Since launching in 2016, 29 faculty in CBS have pursued 44 projects under this grant. Chen saw student-led study groups yielding immediate results.
“We have found that students who participated in weekly guided study group activities showed significantly improved course performance compared to the students who either didn't participate or chose to study on their own,” says Chen. “In addition to the improvement in course performance, students who participated in the activities felt more connected to their peers, more interested in biochemistry learning and more comfortable in asking questions.”
The grant itself is unique, offering faculty the chance to not only pursue a project or research around inclusivity initiatives, but also the chance to implement these efforts within their own teaching or mentoring efforts. Since the program launched, faculty have explored a broad scope of issues pertaining to the student experience, from exploring projects around minimizing test anxiety to creating a more inclusive research experience for students with disabilities and digging deeper on issues affecting first-generation students.
Heather Zierhut, an assistant professor of genetics, cell biology and development and assistant program director for the University’s Genetic Counseling program, saw this program as a chance to tackle a broader issue she sees in the field of genetic counseling.
“The profession of genetic counseling struggles with a lack of diversity,” says Zierhut, noting that the membership of the National Society of Genetic Counselors is 95 percent white females. “Efforts are needed to create a pipeline of diverse applicants and students into the profession.”
Through her HHMI project, Zierhut helped create a series of videos of students in the Genetic Counseling program who have diverse voices and perspectives. Not only did Zierhut aim to help these students share their experiences on campus as minorities in the field, but also help prospective students see themselves as future genetic counselors.
“We realized that aspiring genetic counseling students needed to see themselves in a program,” says Zierhut. “Hearing from these students about their experiences was an even better way to show them what it's like to be a student here. The videos have been added to our website and are now ready to be incorporated into classes, recruitment efforts, and other ways to publicize the program. We will continue to be proactive in recruiting diverse applicants.”
Eleven faculty are taking part in the HHMI program, originally spearheaded by Dr. Robin Wright, this academic year pursuing nine projects.