Dean of Students Mark Blackburn teaches course on diversity in STEM


Dean of Students Mark Blackburn is teaching a new class this semester focused on bringing equal access for everyone to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Blackburn said students learn about other cultures and find methods of connecting with them in, a wellness credit entitled Navigating a Diverse Society and Equity in STEM.

Studies prove the need for education in STEM diversity is real. When asked to imagine a scientist, an average of 79 percent of people imagine a scientist as white, and only 28 percent visualized women, according to a study led by David Miller at Northwestern University.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that there’s value in people,” Blackburn said. “We have to value inclusivity, and we have to value diversity. Once we value that it’ll be easier to understand and work together.”

Blackburn said he urges students not only to have the conversation about diversity but also to act. He challenges his students by asking, “What can you do to change history?”

The purpose of this class is to teach students to avoid acting on their preconceptions and biases in their future work. However, students can also apply these skills immediately.

A report from the National Science Foundation showed only 33.4 percent of those working in science and engineering are from a minority background, such as Native American or Hispanic.

Karla Abbott, an Augustana nursing professor who helped initiate this course, believes that if children see a doctor, nurse or STEM teacher of their ethnicity, they will be inspired to enter the STEM field. Abbott recalled feeling underprepared for college science classes after high school on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.

“We can’t just send people out into these areas, where they know nothing of the culture, and expect it to be successful,” Abbott said.

In this class, Blackburn addresses all types of diversity. Martha Gregg, a mathematics professor, explained diversity in respect to women, and Abbott focused on Native Americans.

Blackburn said equity means equal opportunity for everyone. This course teaches students how to balance their own opposing viewpoints and eliminate barriers, such as social separation or discrimination created by personal bias.

The Noyce grant, which financed the class, was given to increase K-12 math and science teachers in high need areas and prepare them with empathy for diverse cultures in school.

Sioux Falls needs teachers prepared for diversity: 33.2 percent of the school district consists of minority students, according to the 2015 Sioux Falls demographic report.

“If we want to serve a diverse world, as it says in our mission statement, we’ve got to learn now,” Blackburn said.

Lexi Doman, a freshman international business and modern language major, said she has learned to value discussing different opinions in difficult conversations. She said Blackburn often describes the class as “a brave space.”

In one class activity that Doman recalled, Blackburn read a description of a person the students might potentially stereotype and students crossed a line on the floor if that stereotype applied to them. Then the class discussed how these stereotypes affected them personally.

For example, Blackburn told students to cross the line if their parents were divorced. The class then talked about the stereotypes they associated with children of divorced parents. Doman said she had no idea some of those specific stereotypes existed or how they affected her.

“Just knowing different customs and different things that are perceived about me is probably going to help me relate to other people in my job,” Doman said.

Logan Swanson, a junior secondary education and STEM composite major who hopes to teach STEM classes at the high school level, said that this class helped him recognize his own unknown biases.

“I like that it makes you feel uncomfortable,” Swanson said.

In class, a woman said she grew up on a farm. Swanson said he immediately assumed she regularly helped with farm chores, but the student immediately followed by saying she had never worked with farm equipment. Swanson described this as a bias he did not even know he had.

“Diversity and inclusion in the classroom are really important,” Swanson said. “Being a teacher, you have to recognize your own biases and not act upon them.”

This is Blackburn’s first time teaching a semester course. However, as the former director of diversity and inclusion, he had led workshops and says he is well-qualified for the position.

Blackburn said he switches up the plan of study every day, using student engagement activities, guest speakers, social media, videos and a capstone requirement of volunteer work.

He also requires students to sit in a new seat each day to interact with new people. Students Doman and Swanson said this has helped them to engage with many people in the class instead of chatting with people they already knew.

Blackburn invited Gregg to speak about her experience as a woman in the field of mathematics. Gregg recalled meeting only one other female math major in her bachelor’s program. She said now universities hold events to bring women in STEM together.

“I think the most valuable thing students can take from the course is a tendency to always reevaluate their assumptions,” Gregg said.

According to Gregg, this course is “right with the program” in comparison to other universities in the nation implementing courses on diversity. The University of Washington, for example, requires students to take at least three courses relating to diversity, but not all schools have similar requirements.

Blackburn said he believes everyone should have equal opportunities and often tells students, “I want everybody to have the big piece of chicken.”

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