Connecticut College professor to lead team studying ways to improve diversity in STEM education

Sep. 17—NEW LONDON — A biology professor at Connecticut College is leading a team of 10 educators and students exploring ways to address under-representation of Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students in science, technology, math and engineering education, thanks to a $55,000, one-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

According to a 2021 report from Pew Research Center, Black people earned 7% of STEM bachelor's degrees in 2018 while making up about 13% of the U.S. population, and Hispanic workers represented 8% of the STEM workforce compared to 17% of the overall workforce. That's despite research showing that Black and Latino students enter STEM programs at the same rate as white students.

Professor Mays Imad said diversity in STEM is important "not just so we can say, 'Look we have x number of...'" but because "those different perspectives and different histories" can help us dig deeper into societal problems, such as the climate crisis, the pandemic and poverty.

Imad emphasized that the grant is not for another diversity, equity and inclusion program that looks at what to do about programs, but to instead prevent gaps by addressing their roots.

She'll be working with people from Connecticut College and from other parts of the country, including STEM faculty, leaders of higher education institutions, and students, and including people with experience in teaching, administration, counseling, policy and community advocacy.

They will assess DEI initiatives in STEM and consider steps teachers and organizations can take to address the aftermath of historical oppression, the college said in a news article. Imad is coming at this from a perspective of mental health and well-being.

A neuroscientist by training, Imad was born in Iraq and grew up there until age 14. She said going through her doctorate program and postdoctoral work while losing people to a war in her home country "took a toll on my humanity, my health, my ability to even feel."

"Learning is not just an intellectual endeavor; it's social, it's emotional," she said, adding that people can't learn in a meaningful way without a feeling of community.

Imad went on to teach for almost 15 years at Pima Community College in Arizona and is now starting her second year at Connecticut College, where she teaches courses on biofeedback, autonomic nervous system regulation, and physiology. Imad has focused her research on the roles of stress and self-regulation in learning.

"I guess it's intuitive for me that the work of diversity and equity intersect with the work of well-being and trauma and resilience," she said. Imad questioned: When students from racial groups that were historically excluded from higher education institutions are admitted to these institutions today, what impact does that past have on their sense of community and trust?

Imad said it's a misconception that the kind of work she's doing seeks to level the playing field by making things easier for students. Rather, it's about addressing the environment.

"If I lower the standards, and I have students graduate with degrees and then they go out in the workforce and they are not able to perform, I am playing a role in continuing to hurt the students," she said. "If I lower the academic standards, then I am making the assumptions that I believe students are not capable of being challenged academically."