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Honing diversity through authentic research experiences

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By Mary Duggan

(Sept 9, 2017 – ANNAPOLIS, Md) Now that students are back to school, professors are already anxious. Will the students learn what the professors hope to teach?

Laura Gough, professor and department chair at Towson University, said she smiled to herself last term as she read the feedback every professor hopes to receive. An undergraduate of TU’s Fisher College of Science and Mathematics had written, “Now I have all these skills and I’m ready to seek a job in the bio-tech industry.” 

By replacing by-the-book lab assignments with more authentic research opportunities, and proven hypotheses with experiments that have unknown conclusions, STEM students at Towson University have become more engaged and better prepared for the future. 

“When students go to apply for a job, they are able to list all of the hands-on lab skills they gained through courses,” Gough explained. “We hope that by making these curricular changes, we will provide opportunities for students that will help them persist in the STEM field.”

To encourage and enable this radical shift in science education, Howard Hughes Medical Institute – the largest private, nonprofit supporter of science education in the United States – has awarded TU’s Fisher College of Science and Mathematics a $1 million grant. 

“We want to change the way schools do business, and help them make campus culture more inclusive,” said David Asai, senior director for science education at HHMI. “Our goal is to catalyze lasting changes in science education at the institutional level.”

Among 500 hopeful applicants, Towson University was one of just 24 schools selected for HHMI’s Inclusive Excellence Initiative, a program that aims to increase the capacity of colleges and universities to effectively engage all students so that they can be successful in science. 

“We knew that it would be a long shot because these highly competitive programs are [long shots], but we put together a team and the effort,” Dean Dave Vanko, Ph.D., said. “It’s not just, ’How good is your research?’ or ‘How good is your publication record of your faculty?’  It’s, ‘How devoted are you to making science more inclusive?’”

Statistically, TU’s Fisher College has witnessed an 84-percent increase in minority student majors, and ranks as the most diverse among all of Towson University’s colleges. And as overall enrollment has increased at Towson University, a larger proportion of students are choosing STEM and health-related professions over other industries. 

“When you look at the proportion of minority students in STEM, it’s even higher than the overall minority student population,” Vanko observed. “I hope this is an indication that we are a welcoming environment and that we are doing a good job at welcoming folks from all walks of life.” 

As Vanko stressed the importance of inclusion, he clarified that a minority group can be based not only on gender or race, but also what opportunities a student had in high school.

“I like to tell people that, in our college, it shouldn’t matter if you came from an under resourced high school – you can still succeed here,” Vanko explained. “We just need to recognize the difference in background, provide support and encouragement to get that person up to speed. It’s another facet of inclusion and diversity, and the HHMI grant is going to play into that vision the same way.”

This intentional focus on inclusion has resulted in diversity among students, strengthening the talent pipeline and benefiting future employers.

“Psychological and sociological research shows that people bringing different perspectives to the table can provide different ways of seeing through a particular problem,” Gough said. “More diverse groups tend to make better decisions.”