‘Being Human in STEM’ Expands Focus

‘Being Human in STEM’ Expands Focus

The student-led “Being Human in STEM” (HSTEM) program, which was developed to promote discussion and research on inclusiveness as well as the role of personal identities and diversity within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, will offer a course for students in Spring 2018.

The program’s pilot course, held in the spring of 2016, was designed as a special topics course with its roots in the Amherst Uprising movement of November 2015, according to Megan Lyster, the current assistant director of the innovation and experiential learning program in the Center for Community Engagement and a co-facilitator of the course. Amherst Uprising was a student-led sit-in that aimed to raise awareness of and seek action against white supremacy at Amherst and other institutions across the U.S.

Iterations of the course have been offered as a Special Topics every semester since spring of 2016. The Spring 2018 course will be the first time it is offered to the larger student body.

Lyster said the class began with Sheila Jaswal, the other co-instructor for the course and an associate professor in the chemistry department and the biophysics and biochemistry program. Jaswal had reached out to Amherst Uprising organizers to discuss how staff and faculty members in the STEM departments could better support students, according to Lyster, which led to the first version of “Being Human in STEM.”

The original course was relatively small with only nine enrolled students, though it was well-received by those involved, Lyster said.

“To this day, I feel like ‘Being Human in STEM’ has been one of the most fulfilling classes I have taken at Amherst,” said Ruth Manzanares ’18, who enrolled in the first iteration of the course.

“I reached out to many STEM departments from other liberal arts colleges and read up on their practices,” said Manzanares. “This was all done in the hopes of having a better understanding of what institutions similar to Amherst College were doing and what worked, but also what needed work on.”

The original pilot course also featured an interview project, where members of the course held one-on-one interviews with 40 students, faculty and alumni involved in the college’s STEM fields. According to the “Being Human in STEM” website, these conversations “focused on a few overarching questions intended to generate discussion of individual and shared experiences of STEM at Amherst.” Brief quotes from these interviews are displayed anonymously on the website.

“Female [computer science] majors have really bad impostor syndrome … I think part of that has to do with having this preconceived notion of who a good coder is,” one of the quotes read.

“My observation is that many times, students who have difficulty … it’s very rarely aptitude … It’s mostly self-confidence,” read another.

The “Being Human in STEM” program has been offered every semester since its nine-student pilot course was first launched, and along the way, its goals and direction have shifted and expanded, according to Lyster. During the 2016-2017 academic year, the course stayed small-scale, mostly consisting of students from the original course who opted to continue researching topics explored in the original class.

“This semester, we really made a push to open it up to more students,” Lyster said of the Fall 2017 version of the course.

“Enough time had elapsed since Amherst Uprising and that first course that we wanted to make sure that new voices and new students were getting involved and felt like they had a place,” Lyster added.

In the Fall 2017 course, 17 students were enrolled, including both STEM and non-STEM majors and students from a range of class years.

The initiative, Lyster added, has grown to include two new “branches” stemming from the special topics course.

The first is increased cooperation with faculty members in STEM fields. Several professors have developed a handbook on inclusive practices that was shared with other faculty members at the Dean’s Retreat, an annual event focused on pedagogy and attended by faculty and instructional staff, earlier this year. These faculty members have also worked to design strategies intended to measure the success of these practices.

“It’s been a really incredible thing to see, you know, the faculty come together and organize that piece of it,” said Lyster.

Now that Amherst Uprising is “becoming more a part of Amherst’s past,” Pedagogy Fellow Minjee Kim ’17 said in an online interview, students are considering what the future of the course will look like. Many of the practices that were developed in the program have been incorporated into chemistry, biology and physics classes, according to Kim.

“We’re making a lot of curricular incorporation changes with pedagogical practices that past HSTEM special topics course students have suggested,” Kim said, adding that faculty and staff have compiled these practices into a curricular incorporation booklet.

The program has also focused on developing outreach programs to include other institutions and inform them of the research, resources and practices being developed by the Amherst “Being Human in STEM” initiative.

“Yale actually did their own ‘Being Human in STEM’ course, which was modeled on the first semester course that Dr. J [Jaswal] did with the nine students,” said Lyster. “But what’s been interesting to see is … Yale’s a large research university, so they really took the model, stayed true to the core values of it, but made it into their own thing.”

Rather than conduct individual interviews, Lyster said, they sent out a survey. “I think, they got hundreds of responses to the survey,” she said. “But as a large research institution, that’s what made sense to them.”

Ultimately, Lyster stands by the significance of the “Being Human in STEM” initiative, saying it has opened a vital conversation on whether it is appropriate to bring elements of one’s identity into discussions of STEM.

“I think what’s been well-documented about STEM, and not just STEM … is that there’s a feeling of the need to be very objective, and that it’s not personal; it’s scientific,” said Lyster. “One of the things that we’ve heard over and over again as this class has progressed is that people are really grateful to have the opportunity to talk about their experiences … What the course does, what the initiative does, is it opens the door to ask questions, to share stories, to acknowledge the range of experiences that people have … in bringing their whole selves to any context.”