• Joanna Idrovo

The Humans Behind “Being Human in STEM”

Throughout the four days of the 2015 Amherst Uprising, many professors were made aware of the experiences of isolation and alienation shared by students of diverse backgrounds. These four days would lead to a series of initiatives to promote inclusion on campus, including the efforts of one chemistry professor and a group of students determined to create an environment of acceptance in the STEM community.

In the course “Being Human in STEM”, Dr. Sheila Jaswal and co-facilitators work with students on issues of diversity and identity in the sciences through the study of academic literature and the gradual build-up to the creation of research-based projects that lead to change on campus. The first few days of the course are centered on building a community in the classroom, from getting to know classmates beyond an academic level to learning about future aspirations. In the following weeks, the focus then shifts to developing a foundation in the intersection between STEM and identity through various readings on a number of topics such as socioeconomic status, race, and sexual orientation. Along with the background knowledge accrued from readings, discussions, and activities in the classroom equip and prepare students to create projects based on the concepts they have learned with the goal of “creating change on campus or in the wider STEM community.” According to Dr. Jaswal, it is at this point “[when] the student creativity and student-driven part of the course comes in, as well as taking ownership of their projects.”

Ranging in format and audience, many of the projects are focused on increasing awareness for issues of diversity STEM to the community beyond Amherst College. In the Spring 2019 course, three students, with the goal of engaging children in the world of science, set up a strawberry DNA extraction booth at a local elementary school’s Science Night, an event hosted to let students explore new scientific topics in a fun environment. Throughout the event, many children expressed their curiosity and learned to work independently, asking a plethora of questions along the way. At the end of the night, students not only left with the DNA samples that they extracted, but with a newfound interest for the code of life.

Targeting a different demographic, four students of the Fall 2017 course began working on a conference to engage stakeholders in Amherst’s STEM community. Spanning far beyond the classroom and now in its third year of development, this project has incorporated elements from other conference models on diversity and STEM education as well as commentary and feedback from interviews with staff and faculty. Their plans hold such great promise that just this February, the group was awarded an NSF grant to host the first national conference on Being Human in STEM from the 11th to 13th of June of this year.

Although the course is currently in its eighth iteration at Amherst, it would not have been made possible without “developing a process of listening, validating, reflecting, and partnering” with students in order to ensure that students and their voices remain the central point of the course. During the aftermath of the Amherst Uprising, Dr. Jaswal found herself in a situation that “made me reflect on my own process of ‘why am I here?’ and it really rocked my world”. Having been made aware of the struggle of “getting over a barrier that is lowered if you have college-educated parents, are able-bodied, have healthcare,” she resolved to “lower that barrier for other students” of diverse paths of life. In her words, “if you are integrating, you can’t just leave these structures and traditions in place. If you are going to do this, you are going to have to break bonds to make bonds”.

For further information on the HSTEM initiative, please visit http://www.beinghumaninstem.com/ or email Dr. Jaswal at sjaswal@amherst.edu.


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