Research and teaching
Inclusivity-Driven Design for General Education Courses
Journal of College Science Teaching—January/February 2021 (Volume 50, Issue 3)
By Christine O’Donnell, Edward Prather, and Peter Behroozi
Many universities require students to take general education courses spanning science, history, writing, etc. At a large university in the southwestern United States, the curriculum’s goals include ensuring that all students have foundational knowledge from subjects beyond their major so that they can appreciate how their discipline fits into and supports a broader societal context. We note that this university’s goals are not dissimilar to other institutions’ general education goals. Additionally, the curriculum aims to encourage acceptance of people with different backgrounds and give students a “deepened sense of self.” In the sciences, general education courses often aim to impart both discipline-specific knowledge and science practices/skills such as critical thinking.
However, as Fink (2013) argues, students often compartmentalize course content into a “course file” for homework/tests or a “life file” for use in their everyday lives. We believe general education courses need to bridge the gap between these files. Thus, a “significant learning experience” that empowers students to connect or add something to their “life file” will create lasting learning. These experiences can feature:
A course that addresses both sociocultural and personal contexts will access more learning dimensions and can create a more welcoming environment. Science has traditionally been taught as being a “neutral” or “acultural” topic. However, science represents a culture unto itself that has been shaped by and for dominant groups, and this culture can drive away those from nondominant backgrounds (e.g., NRC, 2009; 1999; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997; Brickhouse & Potter, 2001; Brown, 2005). By addressing the interplay between students’ existing (and developing) identities, larger sociocultural framings, and science’s culture, we can create a more inclusive environment that is welcoming of diversity (Reveles & Brown, 2008; Carlone & Johnson, 2007). Rather than reinforcing the idea that students have to assimilate into science’s culture, we can encourage participation by guiding students to see science as part of and valuable to their own identities (NRC, 2007).
In this paper, we present new inclusivity-driven classroom instructional strategies that attend to students’ identities, and our research assesses whether this curriculum leads students to integrate their “course files” with their “life files.” Some education research has explored equity in the college classroom, for example, related to gender (Weinburgh, 1995; Roychoudhury et al., 1995) or students with disabilities (Norman et al., 1998; Bell, 2002). However, many of these studies focus on student grades (“achievement gaps”), whereas we focus on assessing students’ experiences and connections to their identities. Below, we first discuss the unique nature of general education astronomy courses, followed by a description of our specific course. We present guiding principles of our course design, examples of course content, and assessment results. Our work offers a framework from which instructors can build an inclusive mindset into their own courses that “engage[s] students in learning that is meaningful, relevant, and accessible to all” (Hockings, 2010).
Nonscience majors often take astronomy to fulfill general education science requirements. Annually, over 250,000 students enroll in an astronomy general education course in the United States, and they represent all demographic backgrounds (Rudolph et al., 2010). For many of these students, it may be both the first time they will encounter astronomy as a standalone course and simultaneously the last time they will formally engage with any science. This presents a unique challenge for instructors: they have to (1) introduce students to astronomy content and (2) address that this may be the last time our future voters, educators, etc. experience science. Previous research has investigated the teaching and learning of astronomy content through active learning strategies (e.g., Prather et al., 2009a; Prather et al., 2009b) and implementing a worldviews approach (Wallace et al., 2013), but they do not address students’ personal identities and lived experiences.
In spring 2019 at a large university in the southwestern United States, a team of a general education astronomy course instructor (an assistant professor in the astronomy department), a graduate teaching assistant (an astronomy and astrophysics PhD candidate), and an astronomy education researcher (a professor in the astronomy department) reformed a general education introductory astronomy course (ASTR 201: Cosmology). The course has no prerequisites, and this was the instructor’s first time teaching it, though the course itself has been offered for over a decade.
Forty-one students enrolled. Only six students (14.6%) intended a STEM-related major (e.g., biology or engineering), and the most commonly intended majors were business-related (11 students; 26.8%). Nine students (22.0%) were first-year students, 21 (51.2%) were second-year students, six (14.6%) were third-year students, and five (12.2%) were fourth-year students. Compared with Rudolph et al. (2010), our year distribution has fewer first-year students than is often seen in a general education astronomy course. This difference is due to how the university’s general education courses are designated, leading to our course attracting a greater percentage of nonfirst-year students. Thirty-four students gave us informed consent to collect their course data for our research. Twenty students responded to a short-answer self-identification prompt. Half of these students identified as female, and half identified as male; 15 (75%) identified as White and/or Caucasian, two (10%) as Latino (this was the identification terminology provided by the students), and two (10%) as Native American.
Our novel inclusivity-driven course design aims “to engage students in learning that is meaningful, relevant, and accessible to all” (Hockings, 2010). We built our course around these guiding principles (Figure 1):
Our course represents a pilot test of these principles.
An important aspect of our design was our classroom norms. In many classes, “norms” are limited to established policies around grading, late assignments, attendance, and so on. However, as Tanner (2013) describes, “norms” can refer more broadly to behaviors and attitudes, such as “Everyone here has something to learn.’’ To successfully establish a norm, an instructor has to not only state it but also enforce it throughout the semester.
We established a norm to acknowledge and value diverse perspectives in a way that affirmed the importance of students’ lived experiences. Courses typically do not include readings or discussions on topics relevant to members of underrepresented groups (e.g., Harper & Quaye, 2009 and references within). Without making intentional choices to incorporate diverse voices into the classroom, curricula that focus on dominant Western perspectives represent a form of power that implies that beliefs from different cultures are not valued (Delpit, 1988; Banks & Banks, 2010), which is contrary to our guiding principles.
To achieve this norm, our course explicitly acknowledged additional voices. On the very first day of the course, after a 10-minute course content overview, a member of the local Tohono O’odham Native American Nation gave a one-hour lecture on their cultural beliefs of the Solar System, Milky Way, and various celestial objects. He also described the importance of certain days of the year, such as the solstices. This lecture tied into the course’s first unit about human and cultural connections to the sky (e.g., for navigation, agricultural practices, etc.) for many different cultures (e.g., European, Egyptian, and Asian). The norm was reinforced throughout the semester through stories describing the human endeavor of science. We shared life stories of scientists, such as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer who first proposed that the Sun is composed of hydrogen and helium, contradicting the dominant theory of the time, and she faced many systemic and institutional barriers.
Active learning is not new to introductory astronomy general education research. Prather et al. (2009a) showed that active learning can significantly increase students’ astronomy content learning gains. Think-pair-share activities were used to cultivate students’ critical thinking (e.g., Tanner, 2013; Supiano, 2018). Furthermore, we adapted think-pair-share questions to incorporate inclusivity and empower students to connect with their “life files.”
For example, after grading homework assignments, the graduate teaching assistant reported common student struggles to the instructor, and the instructor debriefed those struggles in class. After a particularly difficult assignment, which dealt with complex math and equations as well as visualization of light bending around a black hole, the instructor led a debrief to help students connect with the enterprise of science. These think-pair-share prompts framed the debrief:
1. The instructor asked students to consider all the skills they feel are helpful to do science. He then had them pair up and share/compare their sets of skills.
2. He had the student in each pair whose name came first alphabetically share the pair’s discussion. This sharing method was chosen to promote inclusion: by assigning a “reporter/sharer” based on a random characteristic, we provided opportunities for verbal participation by students who may not otherwise volunteer. Additionally, by choosing a random personal characteristic, we encouraged a collaborative community among our students (Tanner, 2013).
3. The instructor typed responses into a lecture slide, making students’ ideas visible to the whole class and acknowledging each response. Student responses included open-mindedness, communication, critical thinking, creativity, and leadership.
The instructor explicitly noted that these responses are all “skills,” meaning that one can change them over time. Additionally, he noted that science is often done in collaborations, such as the large team that detected gravitational waves, a topic from the prior week. He stated that science is inclusive of people who can lead well, but are not especially curious; people who are creative, but are weaker with leadership skills; and people who can communicate and connect people. No single person has all of the skills that the students reported, and he stated that “there’s places in science for all different kinds of people with all of these different kinds of skills.” In the authors’ experiences, other science courses may emphasize a specific set of skills as being “keys to success.” Instead, in our course, the instructor had the students create a list of skills and left it up to each student to reflect on how their own existing skills fit within science and beyond.
We also provided regular opportunities for students to express their personal opinions as part of assignments and quizzes. Many studies emphasize the importance of connecting content with students’ lives (e.g., NRC, 1999; 2009), and they also demonstrate the positive effects of these experiences. For example, Hulleman and Harackiewicz (2009) studied writing prompts in a ninth-grade science course that asked students to summarize course content and encouraged students to make connections with their lives. They found increases in both interest and course grades among students with low success expectations.
In our course, almost all class sessions included a five-minute writing prompt that reflected on concepts from that day’s lecture; students wrote responses on index cards, and a thoughtful response received full credit. For example, one topic was dark matter, which does not interact with light and therefore cannot be directly observed, but its presence can be inferred from gravitational interactions with visible matter. The corresponding writing prompt intentionally asked what students believe in, but cannot see. Some responses were scientific, such as gravity or oxygen, but over 40% of responses connected to “life files,” such as God, souls, or love.
Some writing prompts were expanded into homework and/or quiz questions. A unique course theme was “reference frames”: depending on how you define your perspective, the same physical system can appear very different. For example, in our reference frame on Earth, planet orbits show unusual behavior including temporary reversals of their apparent direction (i.e., retrograde motion). However, in a reference frame in which the Sun is at rest, the planets always travel in the same direction. The choice of reference frame (i.e., the choice of coordinate system) by definition does not affect accuracy for predicting planetary motion due to gravity, which we demonstrated with orbital simulations. Nonetheless, as above, it has a profound effect on apparent motion. We made an analogy between these reference frames and having a disagreement with another person due to differing perspectives. Students had a five-minute, in-class prompt to describe a time in their lives when two opposing views were valid. The next homework assignment asked students to write about a memorable disagreement they had with another person, what arguments supported their own view, what arguments supported the other person’s view, and how the other person could rationally come to that viewpoint. Student responses on both assignments included politics (e.g., gun control, death penalty, immigration), religion (e.g., the existence of God), conflicts with family and friends, and personal topics (e.g., musical preferences). These assignments empowered students to create connections between course content and their personal lives. During debriefs, the instructor affirmed that feelings of discomfort when dealing with such questions are natural.
We report student reflections, course scores, and survey results.
The final exam included a question that asked students about whether this class changed the way they think about their own lives or their place in the Universe. Additionally, some students provided comments in the university’s course evaluations. Table 1 reports relevant responses; all student comments on course design elements described in this paper were positive.
Figure 1 summarizes our inclusivity-driven course design. Our course was built on guiding principles that (1) emphasized both science content and the human story of understanding the Universe, (2) respected diverse perspectives, and (3) provided students with many opportunities to make connections between course content and their “life files.” We wove these principles through all aspects of the course, including explicit classroom norms, lecture content, in-class writing prompts, and homework assignments and quizzes. We created unique opportunities for students to share their personal thoughts, beliefs, and experiences to directly connect their own lives with astronomy content and science practices. Furthermore, we enhanced evidence-based active learning methods to improve inclusivity. For example, we introduced think-pair-share prompts that asked students to critically reflect on skills that are useful in science. In class, we explicitly emphasized that science is done by different people who each contribute different and unique perspectives and skill sets. Finally, we enhanced our think-pair-share exercises by using sharing methods that encouraged participation from all students, such as assigning a random member of each pair to report their discussions.
The feedback from all aspects of the class, including powerful student reflections, equal course scores from different demographic groups, and overall positive responses to survey items, demonstrate that our design provided a positive experience to help students meaningfully connect science to their personal identities and “life files.” We believe that our results are from the manifestation of our guiding principles throughout all aspects of the course, creating truly significant learning experiences that are “meaningful, relevant, and accessible to all” students (Hockings, 2010). We intentionally included material that represents diverse voices, such as having a member of the local Tohono O’odham Native American Nation give the first lecture, and we discussed the nature and practices of science. These course aspects acknowledged the culture of science as well as provided students with opportunities to reflect on how their own personal lived experiences can be welcome and valued in science.
Our guiding principles provide a framework for future course iterations as well as for other instructors who wish to incorporate an inclusivity-driven mindset into their courses. Our course instructor found that implementing these principles required minimal extra work beyond what is normally required for designing a class. In fact, he found that thinking about which aspects of a topic are most relevant to students’ personal lives helped a great deal to decide which material was crucial for students to take away from the course versus which material was less important. Furthermore, it was an eye-opening experience for the instructor to learn about how other cultures view astronomy. For example, the speaker from the local Tohono O’odham Native American Nation seamlessly glided between stories of creation and stories about peoples’ lives on Earth, in part because the Earth and sky are literally sewn together in their view. Their culture has less “distance” between astronomy content and people’s lives (the two realms have a high degree of overlap and relatedness). By intentionally bridging “course files” and “life files,” we developed a class that was both sensitive to the dimensions of significant learning as well as our students’ different cultural perspectives.
Finally, we consider several possible directions for future research:
Given our students’ feedback, our model empowers students by letting them make science a part of their identities, values their ideas and experiences, and creates a more inclusive classroom environment that can reach a broader student audience. ■
While our course design was motivated by a desire to be inclusive of our students’ personal identities, we also are sensitive to the fact that grades are an important aspect of students’ motivations and course experiences. Many STEM education studies have identified grade differences across demographic identities. Table 2 summarizes the average cumulative course scores for the students that responded to our demographics survey (section 2). We observe no differences in average scores across gender (p = 0.877 from a Welch’s t-test) and culture/ethnicity (p = 0.915).
Finally, we conducted a pre- and postcourse survey on students’ views of science. We selected 25 items from the Thinking About Science Survey Instrument ([TSSI]; Cobern, 2000), which is aligned with our goal of connecting science to students’ lives. (The full TSSI sample includes 60 prompts; our subset was chosen based on alignment with our courses’ goals.) However, we adjusted the coding for four survey items. Cobern scored the survey to assess how strongly students agree with the public perception of science portrayed by scientists, educators, and journalists that associates science with properties such as superiority and exclusivity. For example, Cobern lists the item “A person can be both religious and scientific” as having reverse polarity; for example, a student that believes in this public portrayal of science will respond with “strongly disagree.” Our course affirms that there are many different yet equally valued sources of understanding, so we do not reverse the scoring of this item. An additional limitation is that the TSSI focuses on students’ views of science’s sociocultural context, but our course design also acknowledges personal contexts.
Table 3 details our survey items and results. Thirteen students responded to both the pre- and postcourse survey. For each of the items, over 50% of participants gave the same response across the two surveys, meaning for almost all items, differences are due to only one or two students’ responses. We also note that the presurvey averages tend to be favorable to our goals; this has been observed in other studies and makes it difficult to clearly attribute changes to an instructor’s efforts and/or course design (e.g., Adams et al., 2005; Perkins et al., 2005; Wallace, et al., 2013). Comparing students’ average precourse full survey score and average postcourse survey score, we see a small positive change (Δ = 0.07) with p = 0.170 from a Wilcoxon Signed-Rank Test.
|Table 2. Average course scores by demographic groups.|
We would like to thank the students who enrolled and participated in our class. Their engagement and excitement are what motivates us to pursue these research questions. We would also like to thank Dr. Lisa Elfring, Dr. Joanna Masel, and fellow participants in our Faculty Learning Community for input on our course design; Dr. Julie Libarkin and her research group for helpful comments on the paper; and Professor Camillus Lopez from the Tohono O’odham Native American Nation. Christine O’Donnell’s graduate teaching assistantship was supported from teaching reform project funding by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Accelerate for Success program at the University of Arizona. Finally, we thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments to improve our manuscript.
Christine O’Donnell (Christine.ODonnell@asu.edu) is a postdoctoral researcher with a joint appointment between the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology and the School for Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona. Edward Prather is a professor and Peter Behroozi is an assistant professor, both in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.
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