Every Friday morning, eight students and four faculty members — whose academic interests collectively span 12 different Yale departments — gather in William L. Harkness Hall for “Being Human in STEM,” the first seminar class offered at Yale that is dedicated to tackling issues of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Headed by physics professor Simon Mochrie, “Being Human in STEM” aims to examine how factors such as gender, race, religion, sexuality and economic circumstances shape the STEM experience at Yale and nationwide. The class has drawn participants from a wide range of disciplines, including students double-majoring in STEM and other fields.

Steph MacLean ’18, a computer science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies double major, said that “Being Human in STEM” uniquely aligned with their interests.

“For me, there was a double investment in that I am someone who actively experiences a lot of things that we’re studying in this class, but I’m also studying both STEM and being human,” MacLean said. “That intersection and the aspect of marginality were really interesting to me, both from a personal and academic perspective.”

 The class has worked on a variety of projects throughout the semester, including writing opinion pieces that showcase unique perspectives of STEM fields. The students have also brainstormed different interventions to enhance the STEM climate at Yale. These possibilities include improving freshman advising and establishing more mentorship systems between class years, said Laura Goetz ’17, who is studying molecular biophysics and biochemistry and WGSS.

In October, the class also rolled out a widely publicized Diversity in STEM Climate Survey. The survey’s results, which will be available early next semester, will be used toward creating a more inclusive environment for students of color and other underrepresented groups on campus.

“One of the big things that I’ve felt like I’ve learned, being a woman of color in STEM at Yale, is that my experiences are not isolated,” Joyce Guo ’17, a physics and English double major, said. “The more we talk about things as a group — ‘oh hey, it happened to you too’ — the more you communicate your experiences with others, the more you can pin down what makes you feel uncomfortable in a scenario and the more you can fix it for next time.”

“Being Human in STEM” is modeled after a class of the same name that was piloted at Amherst College last spring. Like Yale, Amherst was rocked by difficult discussions about race last fall. In November 2015, what began as a display of solidarity for black college students across the nation evolved into a four-day sit-in and a movement that was dubbed the “Amherst Uprising.”

In response to these conversations, Amherst chemistry professor Sheila Jaswal spearheaded the creation of a “Being Human in STEM” class the following semester. The project-based class explored how different identities shape the STEM experience through studying literature on diversity in STEM and conducting interviews. The Amherst students are compiling their findings to create workshops and curricula that can be adopted by other schools.

“STEM is seen as an objective pursuit of knowledge and truth, so there’s a sense that if you’re studying STEM, then that’s not a place where you talk about how your identity plays into it,” Jaswal said. “But there are a lot of ways that how you identify as a human being is central to who you are, and these don’t get checked at the door when you walk into a class or a lab or a department meeting.”

In April, Jaswal and her students shared their experiences with the Yale community as part of the Center for Teaching and Learning’s inaugural DiversiTeas speaker series — a joint effort by science faculty and students to spark conversations about diversity in STEM fields. After the DiversiTeas event, Mochrie suggested that Yale College add a similar seminar to the course catalog. He added that Jaswal’s class inspired him to pursue more concrete ways of making STEM at Yale more inclusive.

Although Mochrie is listed as the head instructor of the class, “Being Human in STEM” is also co-taught by physics professor Helen Caines, molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Andrew Miranker ,and physics and CTL postdoctoral teaching scholar Claudia De Grandi.

The class started out with “a lot of enthusiasm and not too much structure,” De Grandi said, which created an important space for productive conversations between faculty and the undergraduates enrolled in the class. Caines also noted that part of what makes the class so valuable is that it is student-led, rather than a faculty- or CTL-driven initiative, allowing the students to “really focus on issues that the student body cares about and need to be fixed.”

“What we learned from Amherst and what [the students] have been putting together here is there’s real data out there showing that interventions really do work, at the student level and the faculty level,” Miranker said. “We want to take them down the path of being real and meaningful and — because we’re STEM — meaning measurable tools and effects.”

In place of their final class of the semester, the students and faculty of “Being Human in STEM” are traveling to Amherst on Friday, where they will meet with Jaswal and her students to discuss the project’s impact at both schools and opportunities for future collaboration. Although the course will not be offered next semester, the class plans to continue many of its projects into the spring. This involves analyzing and disseminating the results of the Diversity in STEM Climate Survey, as well as potentially organizing a faculty teach-in series to help professors connect more empathetically with students of different backgrounds.

  • Ralphiec88

    I hope the class looks at this question more broadly than just identity. STEM fields of study are inherently exclusive due to high barriers. The reasoning behind this is “either you have it or you don’t”, and I believe there’s a lot of truth to that. Take the following quote from Amherst’s program though:
    “I’m done with the major, I’ve passed comps, and I still feel like I know nothing about computers. I don’t know exactly where that comes from or why that is, but I can’t say that being female or being a minority has nothing to do with it.”
    Perhaps identity had a role, but this student’s experience plays out countless times every year as students whose dreams of being the next mobile app millionaire collide with the reality that programmers are born, not made. That doesn’t mean the student is not smart or hard working, just that he or she is destined for something else.
    One other message that speaks loudly in “Being human” is the lack of confidence that some students come in with. Here again racial or socioeconomic identity may be overemphasized, but certainly if an individual lacks the technical confidence (even swagger) that characterizes the best students in STEM, there could be value to a structure that supports those who have the aptitude but are disadvantaged by background. However, the first year is intended to weed out the students who are out of place, and I believe it it is critically important for the long term success of those students that they are weeded out early. A student who flounders for 4 years will flounder after they graduate, and their options are much narrower at that point.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Women aren’t in STEM because they don’t enroll.

  • disqus_YM0iLBGl3D

    No disability? The NSF defines that as a similarly underrepresented group.