Oberlin Selected for HHMI Inclusive Excellence Initiative

June 7, 2017

Communications Staff

Entrance to the science center.
Oberlin is one of 24 colleges and universities nationwide receiving a $1 million grant from HHMI to promote the success of STEM students.
Photo credit: Matthew Lester

The college will use a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to promote success of all students in STEM. 

Oberlin College is one of 24 colleges and universities nationwide awarded a $1 million grant through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)'s Inclusive Excellence initiative. The goal of Oberlin's project is to promote persistence and success of all students in STEM fields by changing the ways the science community is built and science curriculum is delivered. Building on a series of listening sessions that brought together 120 individuals from 42 offices and departments to visualize an enhanced model for inclusion, faculty and staff from across the campus will form learning communities to advance inclusive excellence. Departmental teams will extend these efforts, implementing revised curricula focusing on introductory courses, and a new post-baccalaureate STEM fellow will enhance the STEM climate and link curricular and co-curricular activities.

"Oberlin's Inclusive Excellence proposal was the result of two years of community collaboration. This speaks to the strong and heartfelt commitment of the college to working toward the success of all of our students," said Professor of Biology Marta Laskowski, who will serve as program director for Oberlin's grant. In developing the proposal to HHMI, she worked closely with grant co-director and Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Jason Belitsky; Associate Professor of Biology Taylor Allen; Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences Director Marcelo Vinces; Associate Dean and Professor of Geology Steven Wojtal; and Dean of Arts and Sciences Tim Elgren.

The Inclusive Excellence initiative’s broad objective is to help colleges and universities to encourage participation and cultivate the talent of students in the natural sciences. HHMI challenged schools to identify the reasons students are excluded from science and find new ways to include students in opportunities to achieve science excellence. In particular, the HHMI initiative focuses on undergraduates who come to college from diverse backgrounds and pathways. These “new majority” students include under-represented ethnic minorities, first-generation college students, and working adults with families.

“We’re thinking differently about how HHMI can help move science education forward,” said HHMI President Erin O’Shea. “The challenges this program addresses are important for all of us who care deeply about developing a more inclusive and diverse scientific community.”

In a significant move for HHMI, the focus of the new initiative has shifted the locus of responsibility onto the schools— improving the structure of the curriculum and the way it’s delivered; adjusting school policies and procedures; training faculty; and improving the climate and culture.

“Too many times we approach diversity with a deficit mindset in which interventions are aimed at ‘fixing the students,’” said David Asai, senior director for science education at HHMI. Instead, the new initiative focuses on the important work of making the culture of the institution more inclusive, he said. “We want to change the way schools do business.”

For decades, educational grants—including some awarded by HHMI—have focused on interventions aimed at the students, such as summer research apprenticeships, tutoring, advising, and summer bridge programs designed to ease the transition from high school to college. While these interventions can help the students involved, they don’t generally address long-term issues that, if changed, could have a more sustained impact, Asai said. “Our goal is to catalyze changes that last well beyond the lifetime of these five-year grants.”

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