July 19, 2020

Since obtaining a National Science Foundation professional development grant in 2018, members of the College of Science formed the Collaboration for Inclusive and Engaging Curriculum, Instruction, and Achievement (CIENCIA) and have worked to improve teaching methods in STEM courses. Specifically, they’re working to make them more inclusive of diverse students and to “bring a social justice lens,” according to Dr. Matthew Cover, biological sciences professor and principal investigator of the CIENCIA leadership team.

Then George Floyd was murdered. And Breonna Taylor’s death became known. And Dr. Aletha M. Harven a co-principal investigator for CIENCIA, a psychology professor, and one of the few Black professors at Stan State, was compelled to speak out. Dr. Harven approached her CIENCIA colleagues about writing a statement in support of the Black Community.

The resulting statement, largely written by Dr. Harven with contributions from colleagues Dr. Cover and Dr. Virginia Montero Hernandez, and support from Dr. Harold Stanislaw, Dr. Sarah Bisonnette, and Dr. Wing To, expressed more than outrage at these recent murders, which Dr. Harven points out have been going on for centuries. Instead, it called for action and featured a series of questions for self-reflection. The full statement can be viewed on the CIENCIA website.

“We knew we wanted critical questions in the statement so administrators and faculty members, including our STEM colleagues, could think about those questions. We wanted staff and students to consider the questions as well,” Dr. Harven said. “We wanted everyone to ask, ‘what am I doing to support the Black community?’”

The list of action items expands on what CIENCIA has been trying to accomplish.

Studies indicate some students feel overwhelmed with STEM topics, that math and science seem beyond their grasp.

“There’s no innate reason for that other than the fact that a lot of STEM teaching is very authoritarian with the instructor acting as a gatekeeper who decides who is allowed entry into that field,” Dr. Cover said. “We recognize that’s the real problem and that aspects of how we teach need to change.”

Moreover, studies by the University indicated Hispanic, Black and other minority students were less likely to have successful outcomes in STEM studies than white students.

“That’s a big focus of this program,” Dr. Cover said of CIENCIA, which just completed its first year of providing workshops and programming for a cohort of faculty within the College of Science and will begin another cohort for the 2020-2021 academic year. “We need to recognize the culture around teaching and learning, and a lot of our attitudes need to change, specifically for students minoritized by race, gender or ethnicity.”

Dr. Harven noted professors cannot be a “sage on the stage” reciting information that students try to write down and regurgitate on a test. The goal is to find other teaching methods and to “humanize the curriculum,” she said, to keep students of all backgrounds in mind, so they see people who look like them succeeding in their field of study.

Now, CIENCIA hopes this model will spread across campus. The Black Lives Matter movement and protests in the streets for racial justice are the inspiration.

Dr. Harven, whose areas of expertise is education, educational psychology and human development, has studied Black history and was inspired to address University issues beyond the low number of Black faculty, staff and students.

“There’s so much violence against Black people,” Dr. Harven said. “A lot of times people think of violence as being only physical. But violence takes on many forms. Within the educational context, it might come in the form of microaggressions, such as when Black people share their experiences of racism and are ignored or shut down … or are made to feel like they're causing problems and are troublemakers. There are a lot of ways people can be violent within the educational system and we know there is institutionalized racism within schools. Systemic racism has to be addressed. “

Since the CIENCIA statement has been shared with the campus community, along with statements by President Junn and the CSU Chancellor’s Office, Drs. Cover and Harven said they’ve had positive feedback and University leadership seems to be responding strongly to the proposed initiatives.

“Part of the reason we wanted to share this widely was so administrators, faculty and others who have power realize we want to work with them and make sure people are accountable to enact change and respond to the actions we identified,” Dr. Cover said. “As faculty members, we have the power to enact change.”

Dr. Harven is optimistic.

“I’m always hopeful,” she said. “That’s how the Black community has always been, hopeful. The people who are protesting are hopeful. At the end of the day, you hope that people will recognize your humanity and see that your humanity is similar to theirs.”

Dr. Cover, for one, is ready to take action.

“I have the questions in my office and on my computer and I’m going to look at them for guidance in my work,” he promised.

As a follow-up to their statement, Dr. Harven is organizing a two-day training to address Anti-Black Racism in the academy, which will be held Aug.12-13, sponsored by CIENCIA. Drs. Harven and Cover said they believe the training is timely and necessary for educators. Additional information about the training is forthcoming and interested faculty, staff and students are invited to contact Dr. Aletha Harven.