Over the past few years, major events have brought into the spotlight the injustices some face in their everyday lives. Unfortunately, the world of academia offers no exemptions. Every student differs when it comes to factors like race, age, gender and gender expression, socio-economic status, technology access, and food security. In the introductory astronomy classroom, our challenge is to reach every student, regardless of their background.
In this four-part series, Dr. Stacy Palen will discuss her own journey toward recognizing and addressing issues of equity in the Astro 101 classroom. We encourage this to be an open communication and discussion through the comment section below.
Before I really dive in, let me first say that the issue of equity is complex, fast-moving and developing. Equity is an issue of fairness and justice in the way people are treated. But we can’t always identify these issues without help from others. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Be a little kind to yourself as you learn all the ways that we, both individually and as a society, fail to live up to our stated goal of “justice for all”.
There are many axes along which people may lack equity or fair treatment. An incomplete list might include socio-economic status, sex, race, age, marital status, and disabilities of all kinds. My goal is to make every bit of astronomy as approachable as possible for every student in my classroom. This is hard to do, frankly. It has meant learning to see the pursuit of equity as a challenge, a puzzle, or a chance to sharpen my problem-solving skills. Like most faculty, I am often overwhelmed by my To-Do list which literally never gets shorter, and it can sometimes be hard to summon enthusiasm for creating yet another way to explain a concept or teach a skill. Usually, I can find the grit to take a deep breath and then dive in.
I should say a few words about where I teach, to clarify my background. I am not an expert in educational equity, race or gender relations, or any kind of sociology. Instead, I am a person who has spent a long time in the trenches of teaching and learning, trying to adapt to the environments in which I work. I have been 20 years now at Weber State University in Ogden, UT. We are a “regional, open-enrollment, dual-mission University”. To translate:
Regional: we primarily draw students from the surrounding area who are non-traditional. Students may be older, married, have children, full-time jobs or be full-time caretakers for parents or other relatives. A very small fraction of students look like the “typical” college student. On the plus side, nearly every student lives off campus and commutes, so we don’t have any party-school problems! On the minus side, that means they don’t really form study groups or stick around on campus to find out what a college education is really all about (I would argue: NOT job-training).
Open-enrollment: we have no admissions standards; we take everyone. I say we are a “second chance” institution, not a “second-rate” institution. I would put my best students at Weber into competition with my best students at the University of Washington (where I used to work) any day of the week. The proportion of those top students is much smaller, however, because of the competing responsibilities in student’s lives. Very few of my students can focus the majority of their effort or time on their education, and a very large fraction of them are first generation college students. First-gen students have special challenges simply (sometimes literally) navigating the campus.
Dual-mission: we co-locate a community college onto the university campus. At registration, no distinction is made among those students. This means a typical Astro101 course will have students from high school through the end of college and beyond. We have a significant fraction of “community” students; retired aerospace engineers, teachers working professional development, etc.
We also have a significant focus on supporting Hill Air Force Base, which means we have a significant population of current military personnel and veterans. Deployment creates a unique set of problems to solve!
Also in my background is my undergraduate education, which occurred at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, across the river from Philadelphia. Camden is a famously dangerous place to live, even now. It was there that I really learned what “disadvantaged” and “underserved” meant. My eyes were opened by that experience, and I try hard to keep them that way.
This practical background has led to a teaching approach that has equity at its heart, because it led me to experiment so widely with approaches that could reach students who were facing enormous challenges in their pursuit of their education. I’m not always successful, but I’m always learning. And when I know better, I can do better.