When I first learned about the new coronavirus from my 13-year-old son, I confess to dismissing it as inconsequential. Shortly thereafter, I had to eat my words. Shelter-in-place orders required heroic efforts on the part of faculty and staff members in the department of biology at San Francisco State University to completely shift our curriculum, including dozens of lab classes (both wet lab and field classes), to a remote format.
Alas, just as we were celebrating the successful completion of spring semester, it became clear that the pandemic was far from over. On top of that, multiple examples of ongoing anti-Black racism added an even more wrenching gut punch.
The pandemic will pass within the next few years, but it will regrettably take much longer to eradicate systemic anti-Black racism in higher education. Our university serves a wonderfully diverse student body — it was recently ranked in the top five for diversity nationwide — and our mission is firmly rooted in social justice. It’s vital that departments such as ours combat anti-Black racism. While the pandemic has presented us with the enormous challenge of delivering lab courses remotely, it also provided us with a timely opportunity to respond to racism by transforming our curricula to represent all communities — especially Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) — thus signaling their belonging in STEM fields.
To this end, my department launched a nine-week project that engaged more than 60 administrators, faculty members, staff (including some SF State alumni) and graduate teaching assistants to participate in a rapid revision of our laboratory classes for the fall semester. The voices of our graduate teaching assistants were crucial to our efforts, as they are particularly attuned to the needs of our students. The goals of the project, which we titled BioSLAM (Biology Summer Lab Activity Modification), were to: 1) adapt courses so they could be taught either remotely or face-to-face, 2) align our lab curriculum with departmental learning objectives and 3) ground our curriculum in equity and inclusion.
It was a former graduate teaching assistant, Analisa Brown, who provided the BioSLAM effort with our guiding principles for equity and inclusion. In 2015, her research on the experience of Black students in our department informed our guiding principles for equity and inclusion with the goal of improving the experience for such students. Those principles include ensuring positive representation of diverse communities in the curriculum, fostering community among students and centering student voices.
Our BioSLAM effort was divided into two phases. In the first phase, participants worked in teams to develop different types of lab activities. At the end of the first phase, each participant had generated two activities. In the second phase, participants used those new activities to generate lab manuals in course-based groups. Nine weeks and countless hours of intense work later, we had 10 redesigned lab manuals full of 120 new activities that will engage a diverse group of more than 2,000 students, both majors and nonmajors, each semester.
In addition to being adaptable for remote learning, the new lab activities we developed explicitly linked science to society and incorporated positive representation of BIPOC scientists. What those activities have in common is that they teach biology through a social justice lens.
For example, one activity explores the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 among communities of color, giving students the opportunity to analyze publicly available, real-time COVID-19 sequence data. The activity also highlights the efforts of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black viral immunologist leading COVID-19 vaccine development efforts at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In a second activity, students analyze their own physical traits and publicly available data on genetic diseases as a way of teaching them that humans are genetically more similar than different from one another. They also explore the intersection between science and policy through case studies from the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to exonerate those who have been racially profiled and wrongfully convicted.
A third activity focuses on the microbiome and its connections to environmental inequities like access to food, housing security and medical care, and culminates with students being encouraged to write to their local politicians.
We are aware that each department will have its own particular challenges, but it is our hope that the BioSLAM model can be broadly implemented at a variety of paces and scales. We were fortunate that our department has a history of diversity initiatives that laid the groundwork for BioSLAM and allowed the department to mobilize quickly. BioSLAM represents a collaboration between the department of biology and two programs funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (an inclusive excellence grant) and the National Institutes of Health (a building infrastructure leading to diversity grant). Leaders from all three entities were represented on the BioSLAM coordination team.
In the face of COVID-induced economic uncertainty, especially for our lecturer faculty members and graduate students, we felt that it was important to pay participants for their efforts. While the total cost of the stipends we provided to each participant added up to a significant sum, we can easily imagine departments with fewer financial resources rolling out similar efforts in a more economical way.
Challenges and Strategies
Our BioSLAM project was not without challenges. One difficulty involved getting our faculty and staff members to shift from a techniques-based approach to a competencies-based approach, which we now know to be more aligned with the skills students need to succeed in graduate programs and industry positions. We also struggled with finding the right balance between honoring the best parts of the old curriculum while making room for a new one.
The most significant challenge, however, was centering our activities on equity and inclusion. Despite our institution’s history of activism and its stated commitment to social justice, it became clear during our BioSLAM sessions that our participants held varying definitions of “equity and inclusion.” Some participants shared that they were uncomfortable with making these changes, as they did not know what would make our BIPOC students feel included and did not want to get it wrong.
Again, our graduate teaching assistants provided important insights into how students might respond to different activities. But while they were important drivers of the conversations around equity and inclusion, unfortunate power dynamics emerged in some teams where some students and staff felt excluded in the process.
We employed multiple strategies in our attempts to address these challenges. For instance, we provided templates for the development of activities that required participants to explicitly state how the activity was aligned with departmental learning objectives and grounded in our three guiding principles of equity and inclusion. We also gave participants rubrics to fill out when putting together their lab manuals. In addition to ensuring that the activities were grounded in equity and inclusion, they also had the stated goal of making sure that activities from all participants were represented in the final lab manuals. Last, we actively embedded a member of the BioSLAM coordination team in each group to serve as a resource and address that group’s specific challenges.
Because of BioSLAM, our department is better prepared to meet the challenges of the moment. If our efforts are successful, we will have raised the bar from simply providing all students with equal access to the curriculum to ensuring that all of our students, especially our BIPOC students, can make their voices heard and can see positive representations of themselves and their communities in the curriculum. Our continuing assessment efforts ask students to reply to the following prompt: “I see connections between today’s lab activities and my personal life, my home community or my career aspirations.” By increasing the positive representation of BIPOC and their communities in the curriculum, we hope to heighten the number of BIPOC students who can see themselves pursuing successful careers as scientists.
Moreover, beyond reforming our lab courses, we’ve strengthened relationships among faculty, staff and teaching assistants and provided a forum for more voices to be heard. We anticipate that our efforts will spread to other courses in the department. And we hope that our experiences with this important project provide a road map for STEM scholars at other institutions and encourage them to embark on this important work, as well.