Science courses aim to diversify

CFANS, CBS and others are adding diversity topics to their courses.
June 19, 2013

Traditionally, the University of Minnesota hasn’t incorporated diversity topics into its science courses.

Now, some faculty members and administrators want to change that.

Faculty members from the University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine are working to include diversity in their curricula, said Karl Lorenz, CFANS Diversity and Inclusion program director.

CFANS will also introduce “intercultural competency” into orientation classes for its incoming freshmen, Lorenz said.

Faculty members are identifying specific courses within each of the college’s majors, Lorenz said, where students will learn about different cultures, social justice and equity, and how to collaborate across cultural differences.

For those courses, students take an intercultural development inventory that assesses their cultural competency at the beginning and end of each semester, said Department of Forest Resources assistant professor Joe Knight. The inventory measures the increase in student interest and competency in diversity topics.

Knight teaches the 1000-level course, Issues in the Environment, and restructured it to include the development inventory last year. He hasn’t received the assessment results yet, but said student discussions about diversity improved over the past two semesters.

Lorenz collaborated with the University’s Institute for Diversity, Equity and Advocacy to bring its workshop on integrating diversity into syllabi in science departments on the St. Paul campus.

“Students have to be able to work across difference,” Lorenz said. “A college that emphasizes the sciences has to bring that ability to work across difference into the classroom.”

The workshop is designed to show faculty members how they can introduce diversity into courses through assignments, learning materials and class discussions, said University associate professor and workshop leader Catherine Squires.

She said diversity can be incorporated into classes, even when they don’t fit into the University’s diversity liberal education requirements.

“Diversity matters in teaching, no matter what your subject is,” Squires said.

Lorenz said instructors often think it’s more difficult to create a diverse curricular experience for students in science-based colleges because science faculty members often weren’t taught to incorporate diversity into their teaching.

He worked with the workshop’s leaders to modify its content for a more science-savvy audience. Squires said there are more faculty members from the sciences than from CLA who are interested in attending the workshops.

Most faculty members are interested in bringing diversity into their classrooms, Lorenz said, but don’t have the skills to do it by themselves.

Because the University is primarily white, students need to be prepared to work in more culturally diverse environments, said Associate Vice Provost for Equity and Diversity Louis Mendoza.

“[The University] needs to mirror the complex, multi-racial, multi-ethnic society we live in,” Mendoza said.

Faculty members who attend both workshop sessions receive a $250 stipend, Mendoza said.

The money is used as an extra incentive to buy new classroom materials or attend conferences, he said.

Although the University is still working out how to educate its faculty members on diversity topics, it has more diversity requirements than some of its peers.

At Northwestern University, there are currently no diversity requirements. Frances Aparicio, director of Northwestern’s Latina and Latino Studies Program, said an academics and education working group proposed in February to include a diversity requirement for all undergraduates by 2015.

The University of Minnesota’s Office for Equity and Diversity isn’t looking to implement a diversity policy for every class, Mendoza said, but rather to suggest how faculty members can integrate diverse perspectives into their classes.

Craig Hassel, Food Science and Nutrition associate professor, said the workshops have helped faculty members consider how to implement more cultural context into their science curriculum.

Hassel teaches a freshman seminar where students can visit a Native American reservation and learn from elders in those communities about issues like nutrition and indigenous crops.

“Very few people would get that experience if we didn’t make a specific effort to include that in the curriculum,” Hassel said.

Lorenz plans to share how CFANS brought intercultural competency into its curriculum with other University colleges.

“If the function of education is to prepare tomorrow’s leaders,” Mendoza said, “… then we need to have somebody who can represent the interest of a wide variety of social groups.” 

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