Omwana Ni Wa Bhone … It Takes a Village

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Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy, Ph.D.
Ron & Dr. Mary Neal Distinguished Associate Professor of Chemistry Education, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, College of Science
Louisiana State University

“Look to your left and look to your right. Most of your peers will not be with you next year.” This rendition of an old adage permeates gateway courses in the STEM disciplines. Studies show that many students leave STEM academic pathways in the first year, and these results are direr for students from groups historically underrepresented in these disciplines. In fact, less than half of students who enter STEM curricula as college freshmen will complete a STEM degree within six years, with these results being direr for black students [1, 2]. Many attribute this phenomenon to under-preparedness and other deficiencies of students. However, there is more to the story than simply academic preparation.

A recent study investigated whether introductory or gateway courses disproportionately drove minority students out of STEM pathways [3]. The results demonstrated that individuals from underrepresented (UR) groups were more likely than their peers to exit STEM pathways, even when controlling for high school preparation and performance in introductory math and chemistry courses. This finding aligns with other studies that have similarly demonstrated disparate attrition trends, even when controlling for precollege background [4, 5]. Talk about Leaving Revisited is another impressive work that explores attrition from STEM [6]. Collectively, this research suggests that preparation is not the sole factor in minority students’ decision to leave STEM, particularly in the first year of undergraduate curricula. Further, these studies highlight why its so important to research what makes STEM ecosystems inclusive.

To Address a Problem, We First Need to Understand that it Exists

The studies above, highlighting minority students’ departure from STEM, help us to recognize the existence of a phenomenon, that when controlling for preparation, students from UR groups are more likely to leave STEM than their peers. Then we need to explore what may contribute to the phenomenon. More specifically, we must challenge our assumptions of the nature of the problem [7, 8]. This positions us to innovate, to disrupt the status quo, and transform systems.

Hannah Valantine and several of her colleagues postulated that if we want to see a dramatic change in the career outcomes and decision-making of persons from UR groups who exit STEM pathways, we need to deepen our understanding of how outcomes at each stage of academic and professional development are influenced by the environment that they are navigating (i.e., institutional settings and interventions) as well as their individual circumstances (their background, preparation, etc.) and needs. [19]

Simply put, we need to focus on individuals, and we also need to better understand the STEM ecosystem and how inclusive it is. Moreover, in our classroom and research spaces, we need to be intentional about designing inclusive environments.

Why is this important? If you plant a seed in nutrient-rich soil, it grows differently than if you planted the same seed in nutrient-deficient soil. Many of us would not fault the seed for the environment in which it is planted. Yet, this courtesy is not always extended to students in STEM academic pathways. Traditional thinking rationalizes that if a student does not persist, then it is because they can’t cut it or don’t want to work hard enough to do well. A student’s decision to persist or to exit STEM pathways is certainly influenced by their talent and effort. However, these “seeds” and the outcomes of their growth are also tied to the environments in which they are planted.

What if Faculty Adopted Inclusive Growth Mindsets Around Student Success? How Might this Influence the Learning Ecosystem for both Faculty and Students?

While we would love to believe that we (faculty) have growth mindsets about student success [9], we do not always live up to our ideals. There are dogmas in the academy that are pervasive in STEM. As scientists, we value objectivity, and meritocracy [10, 11]. Consequently, when individuals leave STEM, particularly at the undergraduate level, traditional thinking and fixed mindsets often marginalize the impacts of interpersonal and systemic bias and other systemic phenomena on the lived experiences of both dominant and non-dominant group members [12-15]. This minimizes critical components of science identity development in STEM pathways.

The work on science identity suggests that performance, competence, and recognition play essential roles in decision-making to persist among aspiring scientists [16]. However, these are not all equal in impact. Recognition, or more specifically, interpersonal interactions with faculty and peers, are vital to science identity development [16] and persistence. Accordingly, among individuals who have developed key competencies and who are able to perform well in STEM environments, research suggests that belonging and social integration into the scientific community are incredibly important to their science identity development and persistence in STEM pathways. In other words, science identity development among individuals with the capacity and intellect to do science can be negatively impacted by ‘nutrient-poor’ environments.

The challenge is that faculty mindsets can and do inspire and motivate students to achieve beyond what test scores and other predictors would indicate that students are capable of achieving. Faculty growth mindset beliefs are correlated with higher student achievement outcomes among all demographics and can predict racial achievement gaps in STEM courses [17]. The environment matters! The STEM learning ecosystem matters!

How Might Faculty and Academic Leaders Actively Improve Success Outcomes, Particularly Among URM Students within Gateway/Gatekeeper Courses?

A stock photo a student, in the front row of an auditorium, turning to converse with a student in the row behind them.

As faculty and academic leaders grapple with what it means to create an inclusive STEM educational ecosystem that cultivates the talents of all students, we must move beyond traditional arguments of merit and be willing to explore and interrogate the factors that contribute to student success in STEM pathways [18]. What makes a learning environment nutrient-rich? What makes a learning environment nutrient-poor? We need research leaders who will advance our understanding of the systems and conditions that contribute to the decision-making and outcomes of undergraduate students [19], particularly for persons from groups historically underrepresented in STEM [20].

What can faculty do? This seems daunting. However, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a few steps. There are steps that faculty can take individually and collectively to have impact.

Working together faculty can also pursue systemic change. Collaboration on the implementation of high-impact educational practices offers strategic opportunities. These efforts encompass first-year seminars and experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, ePortfolios, service and community-based learning, internships, and capstone courses and projects (Kuh, 2008; Kuh et al., 2010).

I provide some of the work that we have done at Louisiana State University in the College of Science as a case study. In our institution, we use this approach to foster belonging at the critical juncture of the freshman year. Through our First-Year Seminar Course, SCI 1001, we are combining or layering high-impact practices to explore potentially additive effects on student outcomes. This venture is evidence-based and started with an institutional self-study at the college level exploring first-year retention. Our dean, Cynthia Peterson, convened a Taskforce on Undergraduate Education, comprised of science and math faculty members, to look critically at our institutional data, models of success on campus, and provide recommended actions.

One recommendation was the development of a first-year seminar focused on supporting the transition of students to college. Upon approval, we convened a cross-departmental curriculum committee comprised of representatives from our faculty, our campus First-Year Experience program and Center for Academic Success. This lends expertise from a variety of campus constituents and an intentional design that leverages the full array of campus resources to make them available to students. Notably, this effort is led out of the Science Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which I lead.

Our SCI 1001 course was piloted in 2018 with nine small enrollment sections (i.e., 30 – 50 students per section) and has undergone annual review and refinement to result in what is now a meaningful curriculum covering current science topics in the media, growth mindset, how to study for science and math courses, science ethics, diversity in STEM, and making the most of your undergraduate studies. A collaborative team project is a key learning component of the course, which is also writing/communication intensive; herein, we seek to seed the importance of collaboration to the scientific enterprise early in students’ academic training. For each incoming classes, about 1200 students, we offer 40 sections and have a cadre of science and math faculty, committed to student success, that have taught the course since 2018. We use undergraduate teaching assistants who serve as near peer mentors and role models and function as resources for successfully navigating rigorous academic programs in our majors.

The LSU SCI 1001 structure, which was borne out of deep collaborations within the college and beyond, is having a remarkable impact on students, and we credit it for helping us to transition students through COVID-19. We have seen an increase in first-year retention among all groups, with definitive impacts on our black/African American, Pell-eligible and lower income students, and other populations typically identified as vulnerable in STEM ecosystems. Further, this is a development opportunity for undergraduate peer mentors who are advancing their project planning, communications, and leadership skills by working closing with a faculty member, co-facilitating peer discussions and other activities.

While this alone does not address systemic inequities, we are seeking through this cross-departmental effort to improve the science ecosystem in our institution, collaborating with faculty to create a more nutrient rich environment for students.

Omwana Ni Wa Bhone

“It takes a village” is a proverb attributed to several African cultures. The phrase, “Omwana ni wa bhone,” means that regardless of a child’s biological parent(s) its upbringing belongs to the community. The cultivation of talent in the STEM community belongs to and is the responsibility of the community. Consequently, we must collectively work together to address systemic barriers. It should not be the work of specific individuals, i.e., diversity or broadening participation leaders and advocates. Instead, we must work together to live up to our highest ideas of merit and objectivity.

Individual faculty cannot do this work alone. Models of collective impact and organization change have their roots in self-study and reflection and the recognition that collaboration and partnership are needed to tackle systemic challenges. Accordingly, all members of the community, faculty, staff, and academic leaders need to work together, with intentionality, to gain an understanding of systemic barriers within their institutional context and chart out plans to reduce roadblocks and hurdles. The HHMI Driving Change Learning Community is providing strategies and models on how to do this [29].

The STEM community must support faculty in leading change! Faculty members need the resources to build their capacity to use evidence-based approaches and test and develop new inclusive and equitable practices. This is where leadership becomes critical! Academic leaders must empower faculty to engage in this work through the allocation of resources and time as well as in the valuation of this work in promotion and tenure decisions. These resources include tangible things like the facilities designed to support active learning and intangibles like a culture that supports systemic change.

Institutions must offer opportunities for faculty to collaborate and investigate new questions about the learning environment within their institutions and propose changes when needed to disrupt traditional practices.

Working together, our research enterprise has solved major challenges that face our society. We have placed men on the moon. We have proved the existence of gravitational waves. We have created vaccines for COVID-19 in record time. Together, we can conduct and translate research into practice on inclusive STEM ecosystems that support the success of faculty and students.

Further Reading

Within the classroom, faculty have a lot of autonomy. This means that they are uniquely positioned to foster inclusive, nutrient-rich learning environments. They can build meaningful interactions as they structure learning to build confidence and optimize science identity development.  Herein, the discipline-based education research [21] and the translation of research into practice offer unique opportunities to transform STEM teaching and learning and foster inclusive STEM ecosystems.

Faculty can use evidence-based approaches such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to intentionally address equity and inclusion [22]. UDL prioritizes diversity in how students are engaged in the learning process, learning delivery and assessment, and representation of knowledge. Beyond using this for special education and increasing accessibility, this structure can be used to address equity and inclusion more broadly [23]. Using this structure, faculty can reimagine how they use collaborative team projects, demonstrations, service-learning projects, and other means of engagement to heighten interest and inspire young minds. They can elevate student voices by soliciting student feedback through personal reflections and employ other mechanisms that support self-regulated learning.

Faculty can support student cognitive growth and connections to course content by connecting concepts to other disciplines, sharing learning objectives, and catalyzing idea organization through instruments like concept maps. They can use alternative and varied ways of assessing learning. Faculty can use multiple forms of representing knowledge, e.g., multimedia, including videos and simulations, and they can include individuals not well known for their contributions to the area of study and use culturally relevant problem sets. These practices, along with other high-impact educational practices [24-26], including those that promote active learning [27, 28], are evidence-based approaches that can be used to infuse nutrients into our learning ecosystems.


The author acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation, awards 1930474, 1826826, 1826738, 1719498, and 2019427, and an HHMI Driving Change Community Award, all of which support research, practice, and institutional learning on promoting inclusive STEM ecosystems for faculty and students. The author also acknowledges colleagues that have collaborated on the development of SCI 1001: (1) the LSU College of Science Taskforce on Undergraduate Education, formerly chaired by Prosanta Chakrabarty and Anne Grove and currently chaired by Fernando Galvez. (2) SCI 1001 Curriculum Committee members (current and former) to include Johnna Roose, Hollie Hale-Donze, Becky Carmichael, Barry Aronhime, Gloria Thomas-Fuller, Missy Korduner, and Cynthia Peterson.