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Universities partner to make chemistry more equitable

June 8, 2022

On average, Black, Latino and Indigenous students fail or withdraw from general education courses in their first year of college more often than their white peers. Similar trends are observed between students from lower-income backgrounds and their more affluent peers.

Arizona State University and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) aim to change that, starting with a general chemistry courseware that prioritizes equity through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A molecular educational model. Photo by iStock

A 2019 Gardner Institute study found that the percentage of Black students in first-year general chemistry classes who failed or withdrew was 47.2%, compared with 26.3% of their white peers. The percentage of Hispanic and Latino students who failed or withdrew was 42%, and the American Indian or Alaska Native rate was 54.5%. When students do not succeed in gateway courses like general chemistry, their academic trajectory can be impacted for years, even leading to equity gaps that follow their whole lives.

“Struggles in early chemistry courses can really disrupt students’ STEM journeys. These challenges may particularly impact learners who have been historically discouraged from meaningful participation in chemistry education,” said Rod Roscoe, associate professor of human systems engineering at ASU.

“That is one of the sources of disparities that we need to disrupt. On this project, I am excited to guide an equity-centered approach to innovative chemistry courseware. Our team believes that all learners will be served by empowering them to see themselves in the field of chemistry, form a personal and cultural connection to chemistry ideas, and take ownership of chemistry,” he said.

Ariel Anbar, director of the Center for Education Through Exploration at ASU, and Norman Bier, director of CMU’s Open Learning Initiative, will serve as the primary investigators. The courseware will be made available through the Inspark Teaching Network, a part of ASU’s Learning Enterprise, and CMU’s Open Learning Initiative, which both distribute innovative online courseware designed to improve the success of disadvantaged students.

In collaboration with faculty from historically Black colleges and universities, predominately Black institutions, tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and community colleges that serve lower-income learners, the partners will design, develop, deliver and scale the chemistry course.

“We believe that inequitable outcomes are in large part a result of chemistry instruction that is not relevant or responsive to the diversity of learners. As such, it does not leverage their assets nor help them overcome their obstacles,” said Anbar, an ASU President’s Professor of environmental chemistry in the School of Molecular Sciences. “Technology provides powerful ways to meet learners where they are, helping everyone to learn better, while being especially helpful to learners who are often marginalized.”

The project builds on decades of successful innovation by the Center for Education Through Exploration and the Open Learning Initiative to remove barriers to learning success, particularly in chemistry. The effort will incorporate materials and findings from demonstrably successful chemistry efforts from the two projects, including the Center for Education Through Exploration’s Critical Chemistry and Open Learning Initiative’s General Chemistry I and II. The course will be built on CMU’s Open Learning Initiative platform, which offers open, interactive courseware for better learning outcomes and enables research and experimentation.

“This is really a singular opportunity to combine and build upon the success of ETX and OLI’s approaches,” Bier said. “To successfully serve these learners will require that we innovate — pedagogically and technologically — in ways that demand rapid, science-informed innovation. These are areas that our partnership and shared platform shine.”

David Yaron, professor of chemistry at CMU, has been developing chemistry courseware for decades.

“Our courseware supports new kinds of synchronous learning activities, especially improving instructor interactions with students and supporting better peer-to-peer learning opportunities. Ongoing research and partner feedback showing that these kinds of interactions can be a powerful force for advancing more equitable outcomes, and I’m excited at this chance to accelerate that work,” Yaron said.

ASU and CMU are looking for institutions and educators interested in using the courseware, participating in user research or contributing to the materials. Contact Ariel Anbar at Arizona State University or Norman Bier at Carnegie Mellon University.

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