Inclusive Excellence in STEM: Progress and Aspiration

February 13, 2019

By: Melissa Loe and Roxanne Prichard (HHMI Co-directors) and Roberto Zayas (HHMI Associate Director)

Melissa Loe and Roxanne Prichard are Co-directors of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant; Roberto Zayas is Associate Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Grant.The role of academia, particularly STEM fields is at a crossroad.  Although the last few decades have seen some improvements with regards to the number of first generation and underrepresented minorities in STEM, the number of college students in these fields still fails to proportionately match the demographic composition of this country. Actually, in some STEM fields, this gap is downright embarrassing.  As members of a vibrant academic community, this representation gap should be cause for concern because STEM disciplines benefit from all the unique perspectives and life experiences that diverse members of the community bring to these fields. The lack of diversity in STEM fields could lead to creative stagnation and an inability to educate future generations of scientists and engineers. Furthermore, in the last decade, the demands for a skilled labor force have increased dramatically while the number of students graduating with STEM degrees from colleges and universities has struggled to meet this demand. The University of St. Thomas needs to address these issues in order to remain competitive and to support Minnesota industries and communities.

In early summer 2018, St. Thomas was awarded a highly competitive, five-year, one-million-dollar grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for Inclusive Excellence in STEM fields. This award was the culmination of a three-year grant-writing process, which was spearheaded by Dr. Roxanne Prichard of the St. Thomas Psychology Department, and involved a dozen other faculty and staff members.

The University of St. Thomas is one of only 57 schools to receive such a grant (out of the nearly 600 schools across the country that submitted proposals). The ultimate goal of each school’s grant project is to transform the ways in which the school implements system-wide initiatives to advance inclusion in STEM fields. In addition to the reasons above, a particular impetus for St. Thomas’s grant-writing was some very concerning data on the persistence of underrepresented groups in STEM majors at St. Thomas: while students of color and first-generation college students enter with roughly the same proportion as majority students who express an interest in majoring in a STEM field, students from those underrepresented groups leave these majors at twice the rate of white majority students whose parents are college educated. We need to understand why this is so, and we need to do better to support all students who are motivated to become scientists. Achieving diversity in STEM not only is consistent with our Catholic mission and values, but it is best for the future of science, education, and industries. Perhaps the most challenging, and at the same most exciting aspect of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence program, is our goal of improving the way we manage campus diversity in STEM fields. In order to effectively achieve this goal, every member of the faculty, staff, and administration has to be actively engaged in sharing ideas and prototyping potential solutions that could lead to enhanced pedagogy, more effective academic advising, and hopefully develop a system where underrepresented students eager to pursue degrees in STEM are not encumbered by the flaws of society. Additionally, we hope to leverage the wisdom and experience of current STEM students, alumni, and other innovators in STEM fields, in order to give all students the best chance to thrive as future leaders and role-models who can encourage and inspire future generations of Tommies to choose St. Thomas as the right place to pursue STEM degrees.


Grant-sponsored activities toward inclusive excellence at St. Thomas are taking a three-pronged approach:

  1. Building strengths-based mentoring into advising in STEM fields;
  2. Supporting the redesign of introductory majors’ classes in science and mathematics;
  3. Providing learning opportunities for faculty and academic staff about inclusive course design & pedagogy.

Several grant-sponsored activities have already begun:

Lunch and Learn sessions:  Three times each semester, the Inclusive Excellence grant sponsors lunch sessions for science and engineering faculty. These presentation/discussions are led by faculty and staff who have expertise with inclusion-related issues. During the fall semester, groups of 25-30 faculty members met to learn more about effective ways to talk with struggling students; recognizing and dealing with microaggressions; and the paradox of race and racism in the sciences. Topics for the spring semester include mastery teaching/grading, and what we can learn from data and focus groups. Feedback from participants has been enthusiastic; they appreciate the opportunity to learn from experts, to get good resources, and to have conversations about inclusion-related issues with colleagues in other departments.

Departmental Liaisons:  From the broad grant-writing team, we have recruited an Inclusive Excellence liaison from each STEM department, to facilitate the sharing of experiences and ideas: to communicate inclusion-related grant work and opportunities to departments, and to share departmental initiatives and ideas with the group of liaisons, who will then communicate these things to their own departments. We aim to develop numerous productive paths of communication, sharing of resources and ideas, connecting people and departments who are doing inclusive excellence work and building partnerships. The group of liaisons met in January for a training session on diversity, inclusion, and identity and to share current departmental work on inclusive excellence.

Associate Director hired:  In January, we hired an associate director for the Inclusive Excellence grant project. Roberto Zayas holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and a law degree as well. He comes to us most recently from St. Olaf College, where he was the associate director of the Piper Center for Vocation and Career. Roberto has six years of experience advising underrepresented and first-generation college students, and managing innovative higher education programs. Zayas is working with grant co-directors, Prichard and Melissa Loe (Mathematics), to achieve grant objectives.

Other grant-related activities are still in the planning stages:

Strengths-based mentoring:  Prichard, Loe, and Zayas are developing a mentoring and advising program that they hope to pilot in fall 2019. This group of STEM faculty advisors will support a small group of underrepresented and first-generation incoming students who are interested in STEM majors. Look for announcements in the coming weeks with more information for STEM faculty about mentoring/advising and details about how to get involved with the pilot project. 

Mini-grants for course redesign:  By summer 2020, small course redevelopment grants will be available for the redesign of introductory majors’ courses in STEM fields. These mini-grants will support faculty as they reconsider their teaching, learn about inclusive STEM pedagogies, and thoughtfully redesign courses to make use of these pedagogies. An additional grant program is being planned to support five or six STEM faculty each year as they develop first-year seminars in St. Thomas’s new core curriculum.