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Outside the Lab Professional development

Diversity, Equity, and Problem-solving

As director of the Science Education Partnership and Assessment Laboratory (SEPAL) research group, I help oversee the lab’s three main aims:

  1. We study difficulties in biology learning.
  2. We work on discovery learning.
  3. We promote diversity and equity. 

It’s important to understand that diversity and equity aren’t just about being nice – they’re also about solving complex problems. Studies have shown that divergent points of view are how we access new ways of thinking (1), which can lead to improved avenues of research. To facilitate that, we need to encourage diversity in the scientists of tomorrow. Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that there isn’t always a welcoming atmosphere for students who aren’t from the dominant culture here in the US. And it’s driving away young scientists who may otherwise have significantly contributed to the field.

Much of problem stems from a bias known as stereotype threat, which includes marginalizing a subset of students. For example, if you take a group of students who all score above the 85th percentile for math and tell them that women aren’t as good at math as men before they take a related test, the scores of the women in the group plummet by around 50 percent (2).

Faculty tend to elaborately plan the scientific content of their teaching, but the unplanned, non-scientific part of their interaction with students can have huge psychological and sociological influences, so that’s where SEPAL steps in. We’re interested in retaining more students in the sciences – biology in particular – and trying to make sure that the perspectives retained in the discipline are diverse. That diversity could relate to cultural background, gender, socioeconomic status, and much more.

Traditional methods of teaching generally involve the faculty telling the students what the current state of knowledge in their discipline is, but we’re encouraging a much more active learning process. A major part of what we do at SEPAL involves professional development. In the US, we all-to-often train scientists to be outstanding researchers, then dropkick them into teaching college classes all over the country without much training in how to teach other people. SEPAL wants to support those talented, dedicated researchers in doing the best job possible in the classroom, which includes encouraging their lessons to involve more real-world scientific problems to promote problem-solving skills. We also collect data from students about their learning experience and engagement in the classroom, which we then give to the faculty to help them learn what their students’ aspirations and misconceptions are.

It’s important to understand that diversity and equity aren’t just about being nice – they’re also about solving complex problems.

I’ve been at SFSU for 12 years and I definitely came here with the intention to make the experience of students more positive, but you don’t accomplish that as one person. You need an engaged community too; 85 percent of our faculty here have spent at least 100 hours on professional development, which is unheard of. I’m incredibly proud that we’ve stepped up to the plate, and I think faculties across the country will soon do the same. We’re making real progress at SFSU, but like everyone else, we still have quite a way to go.

Kimberly Tanner was interviewed by William Aryitey

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  1. KW Phillips, “How diversity makes us smarter”, Scientific American, 1 October (2014). Available at: bit.ly/1qLZR2E. Accessed August 8, 2016.
  2. SJ Spencer et al, “Stereotype threat and women’s math performance”, J Exp Soc Psychol, 35, 317-323 (1999).
About the Author
Kimberly Tanner

Kimberly Tanner is the Director of SEPAL at SFSU Department of Biology, at the University of California San Francisco.

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