Virginia Tech’s Inclusive Excellence program helps science educators foster institutional change
For the last five years, a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has funded more than 80 faculty and staff members in their work to change Virginia Tech’s climate for marginalized students in the sciences.
Now, after receiving a two-year extension, their work will continue.
“The Inclusive Excellence program has worked to improve the learning environment for students who have been historically excluded and underserved in science,” said Jill Sible, associate vice provost for undergraduate education and the principal investigator for the grant. “They include first-generation, low-income, transfers, and racial and ethnic minorities.
“Our team has done that by supporting innovative programs at the departmental level, which we believe will help contribute to broader institutional change,” said Sible.
The $1 million grant was awarded to Virginia Tech in 2017 as part of the program's first cohort of 24 colleges and universities. The grant extension will continue funding until September 2024.
The program is part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which along with supporting education, funds scientific and biomedical research. With more than $20 billion in net assets, the institute is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the United States.
“This grant was unlike any other proposal I’ve participated in writing. There’s a deliverable, which is to increase inclusive excellence at Virginia Tech, but we could be very flexible in our approach,” said Deborah Good, associate professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise and a co-investigator for the grant.
Along with Sible and Good, the program has been led by a core team of co-investigators: Sarah Karpanty, a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation; Michele Deramo, associate vice provost of diversity education and engagement; and Mike Bowers, assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience, who passed away in July 2021.
Fourteen departments from the the College of Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and College of Natural Resources and Environment have participated, with 87 faculty members completing the required training, which focuses on skills such as developing inclusive syllabi and curriculum.
“What 'inclusive excellence' means has changed every year, and every department approached it a different way — which is what we hoped for,” said Good.
Connecting students with faculty
In the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, the grant supported efforts to make students feel a part of the program early in their college careers.
Karpanty, professor in fish and wildlife conservation, said her students asked for more direct contact with faculty, so the department started having regular mixers to encourage students to feel connected to faculty and staff.
“As a first-semester transfer student, it was really overwhelming coming into fish and wildlife. It seemed like everyone in my year had already made the connections they needed, and I had a lot of catching up to do,” said Angeline Zbesheski, a wildlife conservation major. “These events helped me facilitate connections and talk to peers and professors that I may have not spoken to otherwise.
“I was able to find a volunteer opportunity and build the confidence to ask for help in finding work opportunities from my professor,” said Zbesheski.
Concurrent with the grant, a broader department effort led by a faculty committee, made diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a requirement for promotion and tenure. For example, to advance in their careers, fish and wildlife faculty are expected to have graduate students from excluded and underserved communities participate in their research and journal publications.
“I think the HHMI grant empowered an already strong culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our department and making DEI a requirement for promotion and tenure has been one of the highlights,” said Karpanty. “It’s very novel, and we’re hoping it serves as a model across campus. We’ve also had interest from other universities and had conversations with faculty from across the country.”
For the Department of Chemistry’s faculty, the Inclusive Excellence program brought a rethinking the sequence of courses students needed on their way to graduation as a way to improve retention.
In the past, first-year chemistry students were required to take two semesters of general chemistry before progressing to organic chemistry.
“Traditionally, we lose a lot of chemistry majors after their first year,” said Michael Schulz, an assistant professor in chemistry. “Often we see students may not like general chemistry but will really like organic chemistry, and there's a group that’s the other way around.
“So beginning last fall, we changed the order of the courses so that first-year chemistry majors experience both disciplines of chemistry, which we hope will improve retention and provide time for students to develop the math skills needed to be successful,” he said.
The hope, Schulz said, is that programs that improve general retention of chemistry majors will have an even greater positive impact on students from underserved communities.
The department also reconsidered how it approaches recitation sections — the smaller, breakout sessions with teaching assistants from large lectures — and dedicated more time to teaching students how to study and learn more effectively, which some may have missed at earlier stages of their education.
“We’re very committed to the goals of the HHMI grant and hopefully that comes across to our students through the work we’re doing,” said Schulz.
Removing financial barriers
At the Department of Geosciences, faculty tried to identify financial barriers to their students’ success.
“We surveyed our students and asked them what were the obstacles they felt made it difficult to complete our program, and they told us one of them was the cost of field equipment,” said John Chermak, a collegiate associate professor in geosciences. “We have a field work component to our major, and our students need equipment to complete it, which is an expense that is in addition to all the other costs of being an undergraduate student.”
After checking the teaching and research literature, Chermak said, faculty found this was a common issue for geoscience students at other universities.
With the grant funds, the department started supplying rock hammers, hand lenses, rain-resistant notebooks, grain-size cards, and gloves for their students’ first field intensive course. Geoscience students can also borrow backpacks, Brunton compasses and safety kits, along with field boots and additional clothing.
With alumni now supporting the initiative, said Chermak, the department can continue the program into the future.
In 2019, the Department of Biochemistry launched EngelPalooza, an annual event whose name is a mashup of Engel Hall and lollapalooza (meaning an impressive event), that’s part research conference, part networking event, and part social gathering.
“Our department is physically spread out, so we don’t have a single, central location like other programs,” said Chevon Thorpe, a collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and the assistant dean of inclusion, diversity, and equity at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “So our students usually don’t often get together as a cohort and see our faculty together as a group, and EngelPalooza has become a great way to fill that gap.”
The annual event includes a student poster symposium and job fair where faculty can discuss research opportunities, all in an informal setting. Grant funding also allowed faculty to send invitations to individual students to encourage their attendance along with note cards that coached students on the professional skills that would help them engage with faculty and future employers.
“This process has been about acknowledging the barriers we know exist for student populations that have felt ‘othered’ and may not know how to navigate the system,” said Thorpe. “So this event allows us to be very upfront and forward about what the opportunities are and how to engage with our department and faculty.”
Thorpe said the department understands that students from minority backgrounds are less likely to participate in undergraduate research or experiential learning but data generated through the grant shows that faculty efforts, such as EngelPalooza, are improving engagement.
“EngelPalooza has been a really great way to say to students who might be interested in experiential learning, ‘Hey, you can do it too,’ because they can see what their peers are doing,” said Thorpe. “It’s garnered a lot of buy-in from our faculty and now it’s something our students anticipate and look forward to.”
Looking ahead, the grant’s investigators expect the program to continue to evolve to meet the university's larger mission and goals.
“Virginia Tech has been incredibly successful attracting a more diverse group of students, and our intention for the Inclusive Excellence program is to address the environment they’ll encounter when they arrive on campus,” said Sible. “Our hope is this program will help faculty and staff share the responsibility for their academic success rather than placing it solely on individual students. And we’re looking forward to continuing our work across the university.”
Inclusive Excellence is part of the Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs. More details on the grant, department programs, and faculty development opportunities can be found online at the Inclusive Excellence homepage.