There is an urgent national need to increase STEM degree completion rates and academic success among Latinx, first-generation college students, and other under-represented groups. Numerous studies over the past several decades have indicated that evidence-based teaching methods show increased learning gains for students, especially for students who are under-represented in STEM fields. Additionally, advances in empirically-tested educational theory demonstrate that faculty who proactively and holistically offer information and support to students and who promote culturally-engaged learning environments that validate and engage with students’ diverse backgrounds can have significant, positive impacts on measures of student success, including retention, graduation, and academic performance. Stanislaus State is a Hispanic-Serving Institution with a large proportion of Latinx (50%) and first-generation (79%) undergraduate students located in an under-served region of California. Recent efforts to improve STEM student success have centered on (1) improving transitions from partner two-year colleges, and (2) providing students with paid, mentored research positions, summer bridge programs, and support for graduate school applications. The vast majority of Stanislaus State students commute to campus from home (90%), and have work, familial, and other responsibilities that limit possibilities for engagement in extra-curricular activities. Although successful completion of STEM gateway courses is the best predictor of student retention, many faculty have received little formal training in evidence-based teaching and culturally-responsive teaching practices that promote equity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging among minoritized students.

CIENCIA responds to this unmet, critical need for evidence-based and culturally engaging teaching within STEM disciplines at Stanislaus State by implementing a faculty-driven professional development program that will enable a transformation of curriculum and pedagogy in gateway STEM courses at Stanislaus State. The program will progressively engage a larger and larger contingent of faculty in enhancing faculty pedagogical expertise by supporting iterative changes in teaching practices in gateway courses and promoting a culture shift towards reflective and culturally-engaging teaching. CIENCIA is based upon organization change theory in higher education, and is explicitly designed to gradually build trust among participants and foster collaboration that is non-hieracrchical and inclusive. Once faculty buy-in is achieved through the use of workshops to transfer pedagogical tools, the program will gradually encourage both individual and collective change in philosophy towards cultural-engaging teaching. We argue that an institution with a Latinx-serving identity should sustain the culture of Latinx students while enhancing their educational experiences. To do this, a change in faculty culture is required, whereby classrooms become places where instructors incorporate a humanized approach and proactive philosophy towards providing holistic support to students. Together, the adoption of evidence-based and culturally-engaging teaching practices will transform the learning experience in STEM gateway courses, resulting in tremdnous improvements in student retention and graduation, as well as future academic success.

Faculty who promote student-centered learning environments that validate and engage with students’ cultural backgrounds and who proactively and holistically offer information and support to students can have significant, positive impacts on measures of student success, including retention, graduation, and academic performance. These impacts are especially important for students who are minoritized, first-generation in college, from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and/or with competing demands on their time and energy outside of college academics. Barriers to academic success in STEM fields for minoritized students result from a large number of psychosocial, cultural, and socioeconomic factors. Culturally relevant models of academic success recognize that the learning environment should validate students as cultural beings, cultivate and sustain their own cultural background, and provide opportunities for students to connect academics to their communities through activism, civic engagement, and service-learning activities. For example, Validation Theory proposes that pychosocial environments that favor academic success for nontraditional or minoritized students depend upon empowerment from faculty and staff. These validating experiences with faculty can mitigate the effects of discrimination and bias, help to reduce stereotype threat, increase the sense of belonging, and improve academic performance and motivation. Especially for students who are commuting, working, or taking care of family members while in college, and do not have time for traditional college extracurricular involvements, interactions with faculty in the classroom provide the main cues about whether the educational environment is inclusive and welcoming. Creating inclusive learning environments is thus a responsibility of faculty, but is infrequently discussed in faculty development workshops on teaching, and even more rarely assessed. In short, student success at HSIs and other minority-serving institutions depends largely on whether faculty design their curriculum and pedagogies in ways that reflect care and respect for their students as complex, whole persons.

The College of Science (COS) Teaching Task Force, an ad-hoc committee of faculty members that was initiated and supported by Dean Evans, conducted a survey of COS faculty (n=68) in Spring 2018 on needs to support effective teaching, and reached the following conclusions:

  1. Inconsistent use of evidence-based or active learning teaching practices. Over half (58%) of faculty regularly use cooperative learning strategies (e.g., think-pair-share, jigsaw); a similar proportion (47%) use tools for formative feedback on student learning (e.g., clickers, minute papers). However, less than a third (32%) regularly promote inclusive classroom environments (e.g., inclusive language, encouraging participation from all students); and only a quarter (26%) actively promote metacognition through activities or assignments (e.g., exam wrappers).
  2. Current support and training for effective teaching is good, but insufficient. Only 4% of COS faculty strongly agree that they generally have adequate time and resources to support their teaching efforts, although 61% either agree or somewhat agree with the statement. When asked about the biggest challenges to incorporating new teaching practices, the two most frequent responses were lack of time (53% of respondents) and lack of knowledge about effective teaching practices (46% of respondents). While the vast majority (76%) of faculty gained teaching experience through teaching assistantship positions in graduate school, a minority have ever received formal training in higher education teaching such as through taking a graduate-level course in teaching methods (31%) or attending a one-day workshop on teaching practices (38%).
  3. Faculty are interested in receiving additional training (in some areas more than others). Almost one-third (30%) of respondents strongly agree, and an additional 55% agree or somewhat agree, that they welcome the opportunity for additional faculty development opportunities to support their teaching. When asked about which of five different training topics were of interest, active learning was selected by over two-thirds (70%) of faculty and assessment and evaluation was selected by roughly half (49%), while only slightly more than one-third (35%) expressed interest in equity and access in the classroom. Most faculty preferred to attend an intensive summer teaching workshop that would last 2 to 4 days, and preferred the workshop be held at Stan State as opposed to an off-site location that required overnight travel.

Overall, the survey results suggest that while the majority of faculty understand that active learning strategies can improve learning outcomes, many feel unsure about how to consistently implement those strategies, although they are very interested in receiving training in this area. Additionally, even though the vast majority of Stan State students are under-represented or marginalized in STEM fields, fewer faculty see the value or importance of addressing equity and access in their classes. This is consistent with more general observations about STEM education across the country that have found that faculty are more likely than their counterparts in other disciplines to rely heavily on traditional lectures and are less likely to incorporate diversity and inclusion in their curriculum and pedagogy.

Updated: August 08, 2023