The Latent Challenges Concerning Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the STEM Classroom: Revelations from a Faculty Study

On February 12, 2016, Dr. Alford A. Young, Jr. spoke to a group of Purdue faculty, staff, and students on “The Latent Challenges Concerning Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the STEM Classroom: Revelations from a Faculty Study.” Dr. Young is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan. He has pursued research on low-income, urban-based African Americans, African-American scholars and intellectuals, and classroom-based experiences of faculty as they pertain to diversity and multiculturalism. 

Key takeaways

The learning that takes place in a STEM classroom is affected by at least four elements – the identity of the students, the identity of the instructor, the course material, and the physical space. The identity of the instructor definitely impacts student learning. In Dr. Young’s study of high performing STEM faculty at a large research university, numerous female faculty and faculty of color stated that they struggled to earn respect and get buy-in from students – they didn’t fit the image of what a STEM professor usually looks like. Given the dynamics generated by student and faculty identity (“race and gender are always present ion the classroom,” Dr. Young said), course material, and the physical space, conflict will likely arise. It is important that STEM faculty face conflict and use it to help students understand difference and truly learn in their experience. Instructors should use pedagogies that encourage encounter, not avoid or overlook problems, establish a degree of control “without driving issues underground,” avoid blame, and ask questions such as “What’s happening right now? and “What can we do about it?” With respect to the culture of the department, it is important that faculty support each other as colleagues, which can reduce loneliness, and show sensitivity to the pressures that female faculty and faculty of color are carrying. It is also important that faculty and the department create a space where they can share ideas and discuss the craft of teaching. 

Here are further details of the talk:

Dr. Young’s talk focused squarely on the classroom. Drawing from a study where he and his research team looked at many high performing instructors of STEM in one large research university, he organized his talk into three main points:

  • the dynamics of instruction in STEM classrooms;
  • the importance of social identity for both faculty and students; and
  • strategies for the teacher of STEM for navigating the classroom and engaging students

Though many high performing instructors were observed, the research team ultimately focused on sixty-six of them – 32 women and 34 men. The instructors were quite diverse in terms of race, science discipline, and pedagogical style. All said that teaching was an important part of their academic endeavors. The research team asked the instructors questions such as the identity of their students, how they dealt with difference, how they handled conflict in the classroom, and their classroom management style.  

The research findings pointed to at least four key elements that contribute to the dynamics of the classroom – 1) the students, 2) the instructor, 3) the course material, and 4) the physical space. Students bring who they are – their demographics, personal history, attitudes, and future prospects. Instructors also bring who they are. The course material and physical space also play critical roles in the class; the material has the potential of activating certain things in certain students. while the physical space affects the transmission of information, the level of student freedom to share opinions, access to the instructor, and other issues. A seminar of 15 students is very different than a lecture hall of 300.  

Faculty identity can affect student learning. In the study, female faculty and faculty of color said that they often struggle to get buy-in from students early in their courses. They do not fit the image of what a “scientist” looks like, so they spend much energy on trying to establish their legitimacy. The white male STEM faculty said they didn’t have to deal with this. Dr. Young said that the “body in front of the room conjures very different things in students” – and their perceptions can affect how much they respect the instructor and engage with the course.

Given these dynamics and that “race and gender are always present in the classroom,” conflict can arise, which often has a social context. College may be the first experience where students are surrounded by a diverse student body and diverse faculty. For some students of color, it may be their first experience being around many white people. Some – perhaps many – faculty lack experience teaching a diverse student body and doing it equitably and effectively. As conflicts arise, how can they be dealt with in equitable ways that become part of the learning experience? To teach equitably, it is important to “create spaces where students need to confront difference,” and to “use pedagogies that encourage encounter.” Dr. Young’s advice for dealing with conflict included not overlooking or avoiding problems, surfacing covert issues and feelings, avoiding blame, and asking questions such as “What’s happening?” and “What can we do about it?”

Dr. Young also stressed the importance of having supportive colleagues and a supportive department culture, where individual faculty do not feel alone as they struggle with issues of equity and identity, where everyone is seeking to understand the pressures faced by female faculty and faculty of color, and where colleagues can share ideas about the craft of teaching and learn from each other.

As STEM faculty, it is important that we:

  • Know ourselves and how who we are affects students
  • Know our students – without stereotyping – and how who they are affects us
  • Know a range of pedagogical approaches for dealing with difference and for dealing with conflict
  • Have colleagues who support us
  • Have the courage to inquire and to act

Dr. Young finished the formal portion of his talk with a slide entitled, “Equity Action Framework Check-list” developed by Engineering Inclusive Teaching (EIT), which lists frames of reference and insightful self-reflection questions that instructors can use as they seek to teach with equity in their STEM classrooms.

We thank Dr. Young for sharing his insights and for his contributions to equity and diversity in education.      


  1. equity and diversity
  2. equity and inclusion
  3. learning environments
  4. reflection
  5. STEM Education
  6. STEM Faculty

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