Integrating Social Responsibility into the Graduate Chemistry Curriculum

Categories: Teaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Kay Xia, Chemistry

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023

Current efforts toward increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in STEM fields generally focus on increasing the numbers of women and racial minorities in these fields, but only rarely do we pose the question of whether the existing ideals of scientific excellence and the current norms of scientific practice best serve the diverse scientific community and broader society. Both are important—we need to increase the diversity of our community’s members and retain our diverse members by honoring their values and identities. I was interested in investigating how inherent cultural bias manifests in our practice of scientific research, and ways to reshape our approach to research to combat these biases.

I added a set of questions to our annual department climate survey to understand what our department’s values and motivations are when choosing research directions. Educational studies have shown that minoritized students are more likely to state altruistic and community-oriented motivations for pursuing STEM,1–4 and yet, most graduate STEM programs include little curricular discussion of science’s inequitable impacts on historically excluded communities and ways to correct them. Our survey results were consistent with this literature, showing that while students who identified with underrepresented groups (URGs) valued scientific novelty as much as non-underrepresented students, URGs were significantly more likely to value consideration of communities who may be impacted by their research and reducing the potential for harm. Based on these findings, we decided that our department should integrate social responsibility and DEI with our scientific curriculum so that consideration of our research’s broader impacts and social equity is understood as an essential component of excellent chemistry research.

In the fall of 2022, I developed and co-taught a new required course for first year chemistry graduate students titled “Scientific Responsibility and Citizenship” that addresses these issues. The course explained the different forms of implicit bias that exist in research, and examined inequities in who has been included in scientific decision-making, which problems and results we value, and how the broader impacts of research have benefitted and harmed different communities unequally. The purpose of the course was twofold: 1) to communicate to students, particularly those with historically excluded identities, that the unique perspectives they bring are valuable to science and necessary to shaping a field that will equitably serve global humanity, and 2) to provide students with some strategies through which to consider the inclusivity and equity of the potential broader impacts of their research. We also worked with the faculty instructors for the graduate scientific courses for first year graduate students to integrate some of these concepts into their coursework.

Pre- and post-survey results and course feedback were analyzed through deductive coding using two theoretical frameworks.5,6 The results indicate that the course was successful in reaching its goals: 96% of students in the class reported an increased awareness of the relationship between DEI and the broader impacts of their research; 91% of the students reported a greater sense of responsibility for scientists to consider these topics, and 58% of the students expressed more knowledge and motivation to take action on these issues. 76% of the students reported an increased sense of community with each other and with faculty who were involved throughout the course, including the department chair; 73% of the students indicated that they felt more value alignment with the department.

After taking the course, students were more likely to disagree with four statements related to anti-racism and scientific responsibility: “There is no evidence of systemic bias in STEM and academia” (p<0.05), “My research is fundamental, so I can’t control what other people use it for eventually” (p<0.03), “As an academic chemist, the eventual impacts and applications of my work are not my responsibility” (p<0.001), and “Scientific progress and discovery inherently benefits everyone” (p<0.04). Nearly all students (93%) thought that the course should be offered again.

(1) Jackson, M.C.; Galvez, G.; Landa, I.; Buonora, P.; Thoman, D.B. “Science that matters: The importance of a cultural connection in underrepresented students’ science pursuit.” CBE—Life Sciences Education, 2016, 15(3), ar42. DOI:10.1187/cbe.16-01-0067
(2) Thoman, D. B., Brown, E. R., Mason, A. Z., Harmsen, A. G., & Smith, J. L. “The role of altruistic values in motivating underrepresented minority students for biomedicine.” BioScience, 2015, 65(2), 183-188. DOI:10.1093/biosci/biu199
(3) Boucher, K. L., Fuesting, M. A., Diekman, A. B., & Murphy, M. C. “Can I work with and help others in this field? How communal goals influence interest and participation in STEM fields.” Frontiers in psychology2017, 8, 901. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00901
(4) McGee, E. O., White, D. T., Jenkins, A. T., Houston, S., Bentley, L. C., Smith, W. J., & Robinson, W. H. “Black engineering students’ motivation for PhD attainment: Passion plus purpose.” Journal for Multicultural Education, 2016, 10(2), 167–193. DOI:10.1108/JME-01-2016-0007
(5) Thoman, D. B., Yap, M.-J., Herrera, F. A., Smith, J. L. “Diversity Interventions in the Classroom: From Resistance to Action.” CBE—Life Sciences Education, 2021, 20:ar52, 1–15. DOI:10.1187/cbe.20-07-0143
(6) Estrada, M., Woodcock, A., Hernandez, P. R., Schultz, P. W. “Toward a Model of Social Influence That Explains Minority Student Integration into the Scientific Community.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 2011, 103(1), 206–222. DOI:10.1037/a0020743