URI among institutions selected to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in science education

Grantees chosen by Howard Hughes Medical Institute receive $500K to support programming

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 5, 2022 – The University of Rhode Island has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) as part of a program to support inclusivity in science education. URI is one of just over 100 institutions of higher education nationally to receive funding as part of the Institute’s Inclusive Excellence 3 (IE3) Learning Community. The IE3 initiative is a key component of the organization’s commitment to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in U.S. academic science.

Diversity in science helps produce better outcomes for all people. Bringing together individuals from diverse backgrounds, and with diverse experiences and viewpoints, leads to better questions that help to drive science forward. But while enrollment in STEM programs by historically underrepresented groups is increasing, persistence in those programs beyond the first year has not kept pace.

According to HHMI, of the nearly one million students who enter college annually intending to study STEM, more than half will not complete a STEM bachelor’s degree. Those who leave STEM are disproportionately students who are the first in their family to attend college, those who begin at community colleges, and students from historically excluded ethnic and racial groups. The IE3 initiative targets the introductory STEM experience because that is when most of the departure from STEM occurs—typically during or immediately after the first year in college.

“Adjusting to being on a college campus can be challenging under the best of circumstances, but some students may have more hurdles to overcome,” said Becky Sartini, associate dean of academic programs for URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, who is leading the program team. “Our hope is to expand on the work we have been doing together to help create a sense of community and belonging on campus so that all of our students have the opportunity to succeed and connect with what they are passionate about.”

The team includes Todd Dresser, associate director of faculty development; Aura Fajardo Grandidge, CELS interim assistant dean of diversity and student success; Rabia Hos, associate professor of education in the Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies; Annemarie Vaccaro, associate dean and professor in the Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies; Anne Veeger, vice provost for academic and faculty initiatives; and Michelle Fontes, interim assistant vice president in the Office of Community, Equity and Diversity.

As part of the initiative, URI is part of a 15 institution Learning Community Cluster that includes the University of Maryland, Tuskegee University, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others. Each institution in the cluster will focus on meaningful evaluation, from both a qualitative and quantitative perspective, of effective and inclusive teaching to see how those practices can be improved and built upon to further a climate of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and access in teaching and learning.

Owing to the collaborative nature of the IE3 program, the team at URI will be able to draw on the Learning Community Cluster and its members as a resource and sounding board as well as a source of support. The team also intends to solicit input from, and draw on the expertise of, faculty and staff from across the University.

The University has already undertaken several initiatives to help support underrepresented communities in STEM, including an Inclusive STEM Teaching Project, led by team member Grandidge, to prepare faculty and others to be better able to support and engage students. The project recently graduated its inaugural cohort with representation from multiple URI colleges and departments.

As learning community members evaluate themselves and the work they are undertaking on their individual campuses to identify and break down barriers to inclusive excellence, they will also periodically regroup. Together they will share what has and hasn’t worked, look for commonalities and collaborate to develop a framework and additional resources or professional development opportunities that other institutions may employ on their campuses.

“Our hope is to build practices into our teaching where we are listening to student voices and to identify points along the way where we may be losing students and what we can do to help smooth that transition,” said Sartini. “At the same time, we want to be able to better evaluate where we are, recognize where we are succeeding and incorporate ways for faculty to demonstrate and build on that success.”