WPI Program Addresses Unconscious Bias to Impact STEM - Higher Education
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WPI Program Addresses Unconscious Bias to Impact STEM

by Lois Elfman

Over the next three years, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will use project-based teamwork to call out unconscious racial and gender biases and change STEM culture.

With the first term of the 2018-19 school year, faculty and undergraduate students at WPI will encounter a new normal. Supported by a $240,000 grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, WPI will use project-based team learning to explore and challenge unconscious bias in areas such as race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and national origin.

Dr. Emily Perlow

The initiative, which extends WPI’s focus on project-based learning, includes curricular and co-curricular approaches intended to expose and reframe bias narratives. A group dubbed SWEET – which stands for Supporting WPI through Effective and Equitable Teamwork – will train a network of students, faculty and staff to provide support and guidance.

First-year students work in groups in the Great Problem seminar, where they tackle major world social problems at the start of their college careers. As juniors, they will work on projects around the world to solve global problems. In their senior year, teams will take on problems related to their majors.

The new program’s training in unconscious bias and tem dynamics is expected to enhance students’ abilities to work effectively in teams, making the bias project a strong fit for WPI, said Dr. Emily Perlow, assistant dean of students.

Noting that problems related to teamwork dynamics can arise, Dr. Geoffrey Pfeifer, associate teaching professor of Philosophy and International & Global Studies, said the student teams can be expected to encounter challenges with domineering teammates, slacking teammates and limited learning.

Often, team dynamics involving multi-ethnic groups leave some participants marginalized or under-utilized.

“What we also learned through the research is that women and students of color experience these issues at higher rates,” said Pfeifer. “Bias and stereotyping stemming from and leading to these kinds of problems tend to undercut learning for all students on a team.

Dr. Geoffrey Pfeifer

“The way some of these team dynamic issues play out on the ground is through things like intellectual marginalization,” he added. “Another is task assignment bias. Women are often given roles on teams that tend to be more secretarial or communicative and men tend to be given technical roles or leadership roles.”

Pfeifer and Dr. Elisabeth Stoddard, assistant teaching professor in the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program, piloted some of the work in this field. When they studied the dynamics of one four-person team, for example, they found the two White male students were dominating the conversation and exercising task assignment bias over two women of color.

One of the tools Pfeifer and Stoddard used was asset mapping, a concept popular in the world of community development. Team members take stock of the strengths of all members of a community and then use those assets to address a problem the community is facing.

“Before students got in their groups, they each had to create an individual asset map,” explained Stoddard. The map included information from interests to background. The students also read articles on the benefits and strengths of diversity on teams and wrote about areas in which they want to grow.

“They meet as a team and share their asset maps with each other,” Stoddard said. “For each assignment, they have to say who is going to take on what parts of the assignment based on the assets in which the students want to grow.”

The approach directly addresses task assignment bias, helps students get to know each other, builds student confidence and creates commonality.

These practices will be implemented with the roll-out of the new programming, Stoddard said.

Dr. Elisabeth Stoddard

In fact, the approach even translates to faculty, Stoddard said. Reading through the student asset maps gives faculty clearer pictures of their students, she said, crediting students with leading the direction of the project by clearly stating their needs.

“We ask the student teams to figure out ways throughout the assignment to help each other cultivate the skills they may identify they don’t have right now,” said Pfeifer. “Our hope is it begins to create a culture where individuals are getting access to skill-building and knowledge that maybe they didn’t get before.”

Perlow said part of the project will be getting students to share their personal stories. Asset mapping will play a huge part, she said.

Facilitating meaningful communication in a supportive space is crucial to the project success of a team, said Stoddard. Over the three years of the grant, they hope to better understand issues that arise in various contexts and how to adapt the new tools to eventually eradicate bias.

“Geoff and I have been doing this in certain classes in a first-year context,” said Stoddard. “What [the Davis grant] is allowing us to do is roll this out on a broader scale.”

This summer, 15 faculty members in high-enrollment, first-year courses will be trained on curricular modules to equip students with team-building and other skills and to address and overcome biases. They subsequently will utilize the principles in other settings, such as labs.

“By targeting some of those first-year courses, we then are equipping students with those tools for future project groups,” said Perlow. “Our hope is to have a pretty broad reach over the course of a three-year grant.”

Starting in the fall, there also will be the Activate program, a student-led series of team experiences to foster a culture of equitable, effective, high-performing teams.

All of these strategies and techniques must also be embedded in co-curricular spaces, Perlow said. Students work in groups in their residence halls, fraternities and athletics, so the same practices should come into play.

Student members of a so-called “SWEET Squad” will be available to consult with their peers. The plan is to have 40 students a year participate in a six-week training program, with participants sharing the tools with other students to broaden the reach.

There also will be additional training with faculty. The goal is that at the end of the three-year grant, more than 70 percent of the undergraduate student body will have been impacted in some way by the programs, whether in a course, on a project or through direct training.

“We’re hoping, by creating this supported space for our students in every single project in every single year across our curriculum, they will leave having practiced these tools in both curricular and co-curricular spaces,” said Stoddard. “They can bring this into the STEM workforce.”

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