Science departments envision accessibility

By Jake DiPaola

Elm Staff Writer

At a liberal arts college like Washington College, faculty are always looking to provide a new and diverse experience for all students. The Science Inclusive Excellence grant aims to fulfill that goal. 

 Several faculty members applied for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Inclusive Excellence grant in January. 

The $1 million grant would be used to make the basic level science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses more accessible to minority students and those without prior experience in those courses.

Faculty are interested in creating supportive classrooms, particularly in introductory STEM classes to make the disciplines more accessible, according to Associate Professor of Biology, Chair of Biology, and Co-Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Dr. Mindy Reynolds.

“I think the College as a whole is very interested in issues related to diversity and inclusivity,” Dr. Reynolds said. “We want to create courses which provide support and help students develop skills which can be used not only in future STEM classes but also in other disciplines.”

Some groups on which they want to focus diversity efforts are women, students of color, and first-generation students, according to Diversity Liaison Claire Hansen, class of 2014.

“It is to increase access from minorities and underrepresented groups in STEM,” Hansen said.

The process is in the pre-proposal phase. The team will be notified in late spring if WC will move into proposal stage, according to Dr. Reynolds. 

“If we advance to the final proposal stage, then myself and another faculty member will be required to attend an HHMI seminar in August to help us develop our final initiatives, and then the final proposal is due December 2020,” Dr. Reynolds said. 

Grant winners will be announced in September 2021.

Some of the ideas the team is considering include rearranging course curriculum to make introductory science courses beginner friendly, adding a course that covers the basics of calculus over a year, hiring student course mentors, and hiring advisors to aid in course structure. 

Some initiatives, such as the stretch calculus course, are already being implemented in preparation for the Science Inclusive Excellence Grant.

“I think it is a great idea because I did come here as a physics and [computer science] major and immediately felt the pain,” freshman Abigail Wilson said. “Admittedly, the compressed calculus that I was in last semester is part of the reason I ebbed off those two, because it was not so much my physics and [computer science] class, it was really the idea of doing the math that I was not really good at.”

“There is only so much your professor can do during office hours,” Wilson said. “And when everyone is getting it at different speeds, it can be a lot for one professor.”  

Freshman Emma Russell agreed, believing that additional peer tutors make understanding STEM material easier for non-major students.

“I definitely think that tutors, or mentors, are definitely very helpful with things like math, because the only reason I passed any of my math classes is that I had a friend that would teach me,” Russell said.

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