Otterbein University Part of Howard Hughes Medical Institute Initiative for Inclusive Undergraduate Science Education

Posted Jan 30, 2023

Otterbein University has been selected to participate in an initiative led by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to increase university enrollment and retention of students who have been historically excluded from the sciences.  

“Otterbein and HHMI share a commitment to improving STEM education and industries by bringing more diverse voices to the table,” said Kathryn Plank, associate provost for curriculum, teaching and learning, and mission at Otterbein. “This initiative aligns with Otterbein’s ongoing efforts to make higher education more accessible and more inclusive.” 

Inclusive teamwork is linked to successful outcomes in STEM professions, which rely heavily on problem-solving. “Research shows that a group with diverse backgrounds and perspectives is better able to solve difficult problems than even the most accomplished individuals,” said Susan Musante, HHMI Inclusive Excellence 3 Program officer.     

HHMI selected 104 colleges and universities to receive grants through its Inclusive Excellence 3 (IE3) initiative for critical work to build capacity for inclusion of all students in science. These grants – totaling more than $60 million over six years – along with previous funding to Inclusive Excellence 1 and Inclusive Excellence 2 schools, are now supporting 161 schools nationwide as they design experiments aimed at improving the introductory undergraduate science experience. 

“Sustaining advances in diversity and inclusion requires a scientific culture that is centered on equity,” said Blanton Tolbert, HHMI’s vice president of science leadership and culture. “In science education, increasing the number of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds must go hand in hand with creating inclusive learning environments in which everyone can thrive.” 

In preparing their IE3 pre-proposals, each school picked one of three broad challenges to address:  

  1. How can we make the content of the introductory science experience more inclusive?  
  1. How can we evaluate effective inclusive teaching, and then use the evaluation in the rewards system including faculty promotion and tenure?  
  1. How can we create genuine partnerships between 2- and 4-year colleges and universities so that transfer students have a more inclusive experience? 

Otterbein has chosen to address the challenge, “How can we make the content of the introductory science experience more inclusive?” 

“Historically many institutions have taken a sink-or-swim approach to student success in freshman year STEM curricula. Otterbein has always taken a more active, hands-on approach to student learning and success and that’s why participating in this program is so exciting for us,” said Professor John Tansey, director of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Program at Otterbein. 

The challenges were carefully selected to help the schools focus on designing strategies to prevent the massive loss of talent from STEM that occurs during the college years. Of the nearly 1 million students who enter college annually intending to study STEM, more than half will not complete a STEM bachelor’s degree. Those who leave STEM are disproportionately students who are first in their family to attend college, students who begin at community colleges, and students from historically excluded ethnic and racial groups. 

The IE3 initiative targets the introductory STEM experience because that is when most of the departure from STEM occurs. For non-transfer students, this departure from STEM typically occurs during or immediately after the first year in college. 

Participants in the IE3 initiative have been divided into seven Learning Community Clusters, or LCCs, with each LCC comprising approximately 15 schools. The schools in each LLC will collectively design experiments and engage in regular sharing of what they are learning from the experiments. 

Otterbein’s LCC includes Elon University, Fairfield University, Fisk University, Fort Lewis College 

Hamilton College (New York), Oglethorpe University, Otterbein University, Portland State University, Simmons University, University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Iowa 

University of Minnesota-Morris, University of New Mexico-Main Campus, and Xavier University (Ohio). 

Additionally, instead of each school operating independently and reporting its progress to HHMI, the 104 IE3 schools are reporting to one another and collectively creating an annual reflection of what transpired in the previous year. 

The collaborative IE3 approach promises to be an important model for organizations interested in catalyzing institutional change with respect to diversity and inclusion. 

“IE3 places the responsibility of culture change on the community of experts – the students, faculty, staff, and administrators of the participating colleges and universities. I believe this collective accountability will encourage the sustainable change we need in science,” said David Asai, HHMI senior director for science education.