Penn awarded grant to promote inclusive excellence in STEM teaching and learning

With support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Penn is embarking on a six-year effort to enhance inclusivity and belonging in undergraduate STEM education.

Students in an auditorium working on their laptops
A grant from the HHMI will support collaborative work by Penn and other institutions to enhance the inclusivity of introductory STEM courses, starting with a rigorous examination of teaching in the School of Arts & Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Penn has received a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) aimed at increasing inclusivity in teaching and learning in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. The funding is part of HHMI’s Inclusive Excellence 3 (IE3) initiative, which invited select colleges and universities in the United States to “substantially and sustainably build their capacity for student belonging, especially for those who have been historically excluded from the sciences.”

In response to the challenge, the University has worked collaboratively since the start of 2021 as a member of the IE3 Learning Community Cluster 6, a group of 15 higher-ed institutions. Together, that group developed a proposal guided by the framing question, “What would it take to empower institutions to develop systems that investigate, support, evaluate, and reward teaching and learning that centers diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and access (DEIJA)?”

The award, granted over six years, will support a rigorous examination of STEM education at the undergraduate level, looking in particular at DEIJA practices in introductory science courses in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. HHMI is committing $505,000 and Penn is contributing $385,000, part of which will go toward hiring an expert in inclusive teaching evaluation.

“The goal is to identify historically underrepresented students interested in STEM careers early and to keep them on track for those careers by ensuring that they can thrive in our classrooms,” says Penn President Liz Magill. “This grant—plus Penn’s additional commitment—will enable us to thoughtfully advance inclusive STEM education on the Penn campus and others and should have a significant impact on opening career opportunities for a new generation of students.”

“We all know how important diversity is to better our classrooms, our communities, and our society as a whole,” says Interim Provost Beth A. Winkelstein. “I am very proud of the team at Penn that worked to secure this award, which builds on longstanding efforts across our schools, especially in undergraduate education and faculty development and recruitment. This project is particularly exciting because it focuses on how we teach, and it will generate ideas and projects on our campus (and others) that make our classrooms more welcoming and our teaching more equitable. The leadership team of this project is paving a new pathway to ensure Penn continues to lead in STEM education, with inclusion and belonging at the forefront.”

Paul Sniegowski, the Stephen A. Levin Family Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the principal investigator on the award from Penn, notes that introductory undergraduate science courses are a pivotal step in the career trajectory of scientists, health care workers, and others interested in STEM. If students don’t feel a sense of belonging in these classrooms, they may not persist in their chosen field, he says.

College Hall on Penn campus with bright fall foliage

“We know from extensive research that there’s a phenomenon called stereotype threat,” Sniegowski says, “that can affect students when they feel socially singled out or out of place in a classroom. If they feel that threat, they underperform. But, if you take the right steps to diminish or ideally eliminate that sense of stereotype threat, then students flourish and perform up to their ability. We need to act collectively to ensure our students are feeling that sense of belonging at Penn.”

The IE3 initiative at Penn will complement other initiatives already underway across the University to enhance teaching evaluation. Members of the IE3 core team at Penn are Sniegowski; Karen Detlefsen, vice provost for education; Russell Composto, associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Engineering and Applied Science; and Bruce Lenthall, executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). Jamiella Brooks of Penn Carey Law, formerly of the CTL, and Jennifer Canose, associate director for education in the Office of the Provost, also played key roles in IE3 planning.

As the project proceeds, the IE3 team hopes to design practices that not only support inclusive education at Penn but can propagate out to the other members of the Learning Community Cluster and beyond.

“We have a vision in mind,” says Sniegowski, “of diverse young scientists gaining inspiration and confidence in our classrooms and going on to move up through the ranks—of academe, of medicine, of industrial science—and changing the future for the better.”

Read more about Inclusive Excellence 3 on the HHMI website.