How Kindness is Part of an Excellent STEM Education

Professional headshot of Dr. Mica Estrada
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Mica Estrada, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Institute for Health & Aging
University of California, San Francisco

In 2017 I set my fingers to the keyboard and, in collaboration with my colleagues Drs. Alegra Eroy-Reveles and John Matsui, wrote a review article entitled “The Influence of Affirming Kindness and Community in Broadening Participation in STEM Career Pathways”.1 I expected to receive letters from “realists” instructing me that stating kindness was relevant to STEM education was absurd. To my surprise (and delight), the response from STEM educators was positive and affirming. Many STEM scholars — students and faculty — connected to the premise of the paper; that to increase persistence of people excluded because of their ethnicity and race (PEERs),2 we must provide cues that affirm inclusion. This affirmation is as essential as reducing bias, prejudice and discrimination when building an excellent academic community. In short, getting rid of the negative is not enough; we also must grow the positive.

Choosing to humanize the education system post-COVID is a natural next step in the evolution of STEM education.

The paper included citations of relevant experimental research from the behavioral science fields (see below). Together, this body of research points over and over again to the influence and power that we have to provide either safety or threat to other human beings. Further, the research collectively showed that many PEERs are not having the same inclusive social experiences as majority scholars in their learning and professional environments. Our 2017 paper goes on to describe how research on mentorship, curriculum changes and training programs show that when people are provided cues affirming inclusion, scholars are more likely to integrate into their discipline communities and persist in their STEM careers.

Attributes of an Inclusively Excellent STEM Education

Since the publication of this paper, my own research has continued to show that human connection and support are strong predictors of PEERs integrating into their STEM fields and persisting.3-6 However, at the end of my talks now, I place this research in the context of a larger vision of what an inclusively excellent institution might provide for learners, staff and faculty if we recognized the human needs of not only the mind, but the whole person (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Attributes of and Inclusively Excellent Institution

In my vision of an inclusively excellent academic institution, there are experiences of kindness and belonging for all people at the institution, regardless of role, race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, ability or caste. In addition, everyone would experience knowledge acquisition, utilizing best practices known to broaden participation in STEM (e.g., active learning, authentic research experiences and connecting course content to scholars’ values).7 Recognizing that our bodies know when we are alone, or when we are accompanied, the presence of others like us can be important to feeling safe. Representation at all levels of the academic hierarchy would be ideal. Last, there should be equal opportunity to experience creativity and meaning making for all persons. This is a means of satisfying the basic human need for “self-actualization,” which Maslow8 defines as the “acceptance and expression of the inner core of self” (p. 185). Thus, a truly inclusively excellent institution will do more than provide ample learning opportunities (satisfying the needs of the mind) by also providing nourishment to the whole person, including the needs of the heart, body and spirit of each human being, ending a long legacy of exploitation and exclusion of some people in academia.

If this proposal strikes you as a radical and impossible shift, then I would like to draw your attention to current research on mentorship, curriculum change and training programs that have demonstrated success in retaining PEERs. Many of these successful interventions to broaden participation in STEM provide one or more of the following:

  • Opportunities to build connection with other people. Creation of a “team” or “community” for scholars that increases a sense of belonging and identity in their discipline.
  • Instrumental support for learning. The forms of this support include classic and cutting-edge approaches to teaching, advising, tutoring and providing the materials needed to engage in learning a discipline.
  • Opportunities to be with people who share similar demographic characteristics. This condition occurs less often in curriculum change context because enrollment in a class is seldom engineered. However, many science training programs do admit cohorts who share demographic similarities. Recent work on effective mentorship also shows that while dominant demographic similarity (such as gender and race) does not predict mentoring success, perceiving that there are some similarities is important.9
  • Ways for learners to connect their studies to personally held values. Research has shown that communicating the aim of the STEM pursuit in terms of benefits to society (known as communal values in the literature) rather than individualistic gain (e.g. money) helps sustain interest and commitment to a STEM career for some learners.

For example, the UC Berkeley Biology Scholars Program and the University of Maryland Baltimore County Meyerhoff Scholars Program, both nationally recognized as science training programs that are successful at increasing persistence in STEM fields, vary in the level of preparation their scholars have when joining their program.10,11 At the same time, both  programs have PEERs engagement in supportive academic experiences that provide scholars with instrumental support and opportunity to be in a community with others demographically similar to themselves.  Other examples can be drawn from course-based undergraduate research curricula that are recognized for increasing retention in science, such as The Tiny Earth program or the SEA-PHAGES curriculum. These curricula provide instrumental support, cohort research opportunities and connection to research that have value to local communities. The result is that learners feel an increased sense of belonging, greater efficacy and strengthened science identities.12-18 And last, while quality mentors are found to provide instrumental support, psychosocial support that conveys human connection is also shown to be important.

Beyond these few examples, mounting evidence that one or more of these characteristics occur in “successful” educational encounters is described in several National Academy reports, while recognizing that ongoing experimental study is needed.19,20 The emerging evidence strongly suggests that in order to increase equity and inclusion, STEM fields and academic institutions benefit greatly from humanizing the educational experience. Further, research is showing that these types of shifts often benefit learners in general, not just PEERs.

Humanizing Education

In 2020, academic institutions have been massively disrupted. For many, COVID-19 has caused us to lean into greater expressions of compassion and kindness as we observed students and colleagues working from home while juggling pets, children, elderly relatives, economic pressures, unstable internet, health disparities, political unrest, climate disruptions, racism, violence and death. We have had to ask ourselves if using economic prosperity as almost the sole criteria for success, even at the expense of people and the planet, is serving our education system or our nation. Choosing to humanize the education system post-COVID is a natural next step in the evolution of STEM education. This transformation is not only an ethical imperative, and a benefit to the people learning and working in academia, but also has the potential to support the well-being and health of our communities and the planet on which we dwell.

Relevant Experimental Research from the Behavioral Science Fields

Claude Steele’s research on stereotype threat

Steele, C.M., & Aronson J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  69(5):798-811. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797.

Steele, C.M. (1998). Stereotyping and its threat are real. American Psychologist, 53(6):680-681. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.53.6.680.

Steele, C.M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us (issues of our time). New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

Walton, Cohen & Sherman’s research on self-affirmation theory

Cohen, G.L., & Sherman, D.K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1):333-371. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115137

Cohen, G.L., & Sherman, D.K. (2007). Self-affirmation theory. In Baumeister R.F., Vohs K.D. (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 787-789.

Sherman, D.K., Hartson K.A., Binning K.R., et al. (2013). Deflecting the trajectory and changing the narrative: How self-affirmation affects academic performance and motivation under identity threat. Journal of Personality Social Psychology,  104(4):591-618. doi:10.1037/a0031495.

Walton, G.M., Cohen, G.L., Cwir, D., & Spencer, S.J. (2012). Mere belonging: The power of social connections. Journal of Personality Social Psychology, 102(3):513-532. doi:10.1037/a0025731.

Rudy Mendoza-Denton’s research on race-based rejection sensitivity

Mendoza-Denton, R., Pietrzak, J., & Downey, G. (2008). Distinguishing institutional identification from academic goal pursuit: Interactive effects of ethnic identification and race-based rejection sensitivity. Journal of Personality Social Psychology, 95(2):338-351. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.95.2.338.

Mendoza-Denton, R., Downey, G., Purdie, V.J., Davis, A., & Pietrzak, J. 2002. Sensitivity to status-based rejection: Implications for African American students’ college experience. Journal of Personality Social Psychology, 83(4):896-918. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.4.896.

Diekman’s research on communal goal theory

Diekman, A.B., Clark, E.K., Johnston, A.M., Brown, E.R., & Steinberg, M. (2011). Malleability in communal goals and beliefs influences attraction to STEM careers: Evidence for a goal congruity perspective. Journal of Personality Social Psychology,  101(5):902-918. doi:10.1037/a0025199.

Diekman, A.B., Brown, E.R., Johnston, A.M., & Clark, E.K. (2010). Seeking congruity between goals and roles: A new look at why women opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Psychological Science,  21(8):1051-1057. doi:10.1177/0956797610377342.

Judith Harackiewicz research on expectancy value theory

Hulleman, C.S., Durik, A.M., Schweigert, S.A., & Harackiewicz, J.M. (2008). Task values, achievement goals, and interest: An integrative analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(2):398-416. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.100.2.398.

Hulleman, C.S., & Harackiewicz, J.M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326(5958):1410-1412. doi:10.1126/science.1177067.

Okagaki, L. (2001). Triarchic model of minority children’s school achievement. Educational Psychologist, 36(1):9-20. doi:10.1207/S15326985EP3601_2.

And less researched, but commonly invoked work on critical race theory

Leonardo, Z. (2010) Handbook of cultural politics and education. Berkeley, CA: Sense Publishers.

Delgado, R. (1995). The Rodrigo Chronicles: Conversations about race in America. New York, NY: New York University Press.