Bringing Theory to Practice: Creating a Culture of Support and Collaboration in STEM

Truth Hunter is the assistant director of BEOP, Bard’s Educational Opportunity Programs. Her experience and expertise lies in designing and hosting academic and personal skill development workshops. She also serves as a holistic advisor to HEOP, BOP, and Posse Scholars at Bard. As a woman of color and Math and Computer Science major, I was interested to know more about her new project, Bringing Theory to Practice, a mentoring program for minorities majoring in STEM. The group meets once a month to share experiences, learn success strategies, and ultimately build a community of support.

Marley: Can you begin by sharing how you came up with the idea for Bringing Theory to Practice?

Truth: During my first year at Bard, I noticed that many of our first-year BEOP Scholars initially showed a strong interest in studying computer science, biology, chemistry, and other sciences. One student wanted to go on the pre-med track, but had never taken chemistry in her high school, because it wasn’t offered. College level chemistry was her first exposure to it and that was a huge intellectual leap. Then, this year, we had a student who wanted to be a math major, and the highest level of math at his school had been Advanced Algebra/Trig. So he took calculus his first semester, but it was really, really difficult for him. Most students who do well in those 100-level introductory courses, have taken AP classes in high school. And I always explain to my students: “That’s why other students look smart. It’s not because they were just born that way; they probably learned this prior to class.” Early exposure is a key strategy to doing well at anything. But my students didn’t know that. They all started off the year with lots energy and enthusiasm, but by the second semester, many of them felt that science was no longer for them. I was really impacted by that, because I strongly believe that if there’s something you really want to do, you should be able do it! Even if you’re experiencing some difficulties at first.

Then, toward the end of the last academic year, I heard about a $20,000 grant for helping different student populations create wellness by building resiliency, character, and community. I realized that that is exactly what we need for underrepresented students in STEM programs at Bard. I thought, what if we created a specific program for them to help develop non-cognitive skills? These are skills that you learn outside of class which make you more effective in class, like resilience and perseverance. This also includes “soft” skills like how you connect with people and work in groups. I believe that you can actually build non-cognitive skills! That’s my hypothesis, and this whole project is an experiment. I also believe that the more students talk about the way they learn, the more strategies they develop to help themselves learn better. There is some value in having time to self-reflect on certain questions like: How am I a learner? What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? Okay, now that I know my weaknesses, what do I do? Do I connect with a professor, do I connect with a tutor? Do I write notes right after class? Do I start on things early? How do I become more effective as a learner? We do these things naturally and organically without thinking about it, but what if we made it more structured? Would that produce a more positive outcome? Providing a space for students to learn how to master themselves can be very powerful.

M: You mentioned that your first-year students wanted to give up science after their first semester, and I feel like that’s something that pretty much every science major can relate to. I was very close to dropping math at first, because I was just like “This is so hard, I feel like I’m the only person that has these questions, I feel like I’m visiting the professor’s office hours every day and he hates me now…” I mean, it was only thanks to my mom that I stuck with it. Whenever I was struggling that first year, she would say “Even if you hate it, just do one more semester.” Every time I decide to stick with a subject that challenges me, I’m amazed by how resilient I can be. That push is the crucial part, though. It’s because I had that prompting and that support from my mom that I stuck with it. This is why your new program is such a great idea.

T: I think that what you’re saying is excellent. If you nurture something, it will grow. It’s the same thing for underrepresented students in STEM: if you nurture them, they will grow. Not only that, but also, this program is about figuring out how to destigmatize certain parts of the learning process. Similar to what you were saying: “I’m always in my professor’s office hours, I’m always asking these questions.”… Well? What’s wrong with that??

M: I mean you’re right. But in the moment, you think you’re stupid to be asking so many questions.

T: Right, exactly! But where did that come from? That’s the conversation that I want us to have in Bringing Theory to Practice. Why would that even suggest that someone’s not learning or not good enough or whatever? Asking questions and always being in office hours and going to tutoring… How can we redefine these things? A lot of students who have always been a superstar all throughout high school start believing that they are not ‘good enough’ if they need to utilize these resources in college. We assume that the learning process is that the teacher teaches it once, the student gets it, and that’s it. It’s not necessarily linear, though! You know? That’s what I want students to pull from Bringing Theory to Practice. I want them to be able to say: “I may not be a straight A student, but I’m passionate about what I do, and I feel supported.” I think that’s really powerful.

M: It is powerful. But it’s hard to get to that point, you know? Because, imagine you’re the only student of color in your science class. And if you’re a woman you’re even more of a minority in that class. You want to show that you fit in. By asking questions though, you’re drawing attention to yourself as someone who’s confused; you’re making it seem like you don’t belong there. That’s a scary thing to do.

T: It is scary. And I’ve been noticing that academics often turns into a performance. “I’m appearing smart. I’m sounding smart. I do smart things.” What about those moments when you need to be authentic and say, “I need help” or, “I don’t understand”? Because you’ve been building this performance of being smart, it becomes very difficult to switch roles. At some point, anyone in their career is going to have a point when they’re going to need to ask for help.

M: And the more practice you have with asking for help, the easier it’s going to be when you need to do that. The question is: how do you take the first step in developing that mentality? How does Bringing Theory to Practice teach students to destigmatize the act of asking for help?

T: What the program is sort of morphing into is really a network of underrepresented students in STEM who get together and share strategies and ideas and motivate each other. That’s all it is. And it’s a really simple format. We eat food, we get together, and we usually read and discuss a case study. One was a case study around how Xavier University, an historically black college in New Orleans, produces the most black doctors. How do they do it? The secret is that they pour so much support into the students who have very weak academic backgrounds, and they pair them up with students who have strong academic backgrounds. They create this culture where it’s not about competition, but about support and collaboration! And then they send off all these black doctors to medical schools at rates that other schools can’t even compare to! It comes down to something very simple: changing the culture through support, collaboration, and destigmatizing certain things.

M: That’s amazing. I mean it’s such a simple policy, but since no one else is doing it, it seems ground-breaking!

T: Exactly!! So I like to share those things at the meetings when we come together, just to get people to start realizing that we have to do education differently. You know? There’s this old-school mentality of “Look to the left of you, look to the right of you: those people will not be graduating with you.” That’s antiquated. If we keep competing and being so cut-throat, we won’t be able to sustain this planet. That’s what it comes down to.

M: And we need more doctors!

T: We need more doctors, we need more researchers; we need these people. So we have to nurture them. We must create a community around sciences, be more collaborative, meet people where they’re at, and provide resources. My dream is that it shouldn’t matter where you come from academically. That, whether or not you went to the worst schools, you’re able to get to college. And when you get there, there will be so many incredible resources and so many people rooting for you that you just find the major that your greatest heart desires. You won’t have to say “Oh, I’m not good enough…”. No. We will have created the environment so that that whatever it is you want to do, you should be able to do it. That’s where I hope education will go in the future.

Anyone who identifies as a minority in science is encouraged to join the community of collaborators that is Bringing Theory to Practice. Contact Truth Hunter at nhunter@bard.edu to learn more.

 

Marley Alford

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