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Best Practices for Diversity, Inclusion in Sciences

Grinnell College will host a national conference June 19-20 that seeks innovative ways to train faculty and to develop creative approaches that foster diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

The conference includes four free, public keynote talks in Noyce Science Center, Room 2022:

Friday, June 19
9-10 a.m.

Denise Sekaquaptewa, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan

Social Psychological Research on Factors Shaping the Climate for Diversity in STEM
2-3 p.m.

Nilanjana Dasgupta, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Thriving Despite Negative Stereotypes: How Own-Group Experts and Peers Act as Social Vaccines to Protect Against Implicit Bias
Saturday, June 20
8:30-9:30 a.m.

Becky Wai-Ling Packard, professor of psychology and director of the Weissman Center for Leadership at Mount Holyoke College

From Microaggressions to Microaffirmations: Framing Constructive Feedback to Students
2-3 p.m.

Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago

Anxiety, Attitudes and Motivation: Helping Students Perform their Best under Stress

About the Conference

Grinnell College will welcome faculty and staff members involved in teaching and learning at the 15 member institutions of the Liberal Arts College Association for Faculty Inclusion (LACAFI). These schools share similar challenges in addressing diversity concerns yet have similar goals in these areas and similar resources for meeting them.

“The goal of our conference is to empower educators to initiate diversity and inclusion efforts on their campuses," said Mark Levandoski, co-chair of LACAFI and professor of chemistry.

The conference also will include sessions on stereotype threat and implicit bias as well as successes and failures. Small-group discussions will enable different colleges to share best practices. In addition, institutional teams will work to develop their diversity and inclusion action plans.

Accessibility Accommodations

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Accommodation requests may be made to conference operations.

Decoding Diversity

Lester Alemán ’07 became an advocate and a leader while a Posse Scholar at Grinnell College. He also worked as a program director for nearly four years at the Posse Foundation in Los Angeles. So it’s only fitting he had a chance showcase those skills while discussing the often controversial topic of diversity at the first-ever TEDxGrinnell event.

We talked with Lester about his TEDxGrinnell experience and time as a Grinnell student.  

What was it like giving a TEDxGrinnell talk?

Lester Alemen, left, talks to TEDx attendeesDelivering a TED Talk is, by far, one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my career. I’m honored that Grinnell College thought of me as someone who is a subject-matter expert in the field of diversity initiatives. My speech delivered a dose of obvious. But what’s more striking to me is that no matter how obvious diversity is in this country, we — as a nation— still resist it. I wrote my talk not only for the sociology majors of the country, but for people who need a reminder of what truly shapes this nation, and how we continuously perpetuate our lack of acceptance. “It’s not okay” somehow became my tag line. So when I think of how many people kept repeating that after my talk, I think I drove a message home. Now the work rests in the hands of those who listened.

Thinking back as a student, what is the most striking way you were affected by the culture shift from your home in Los Angeles to Grinnell?

Attending Grinnell College allowed me to understand the fabric of our social landscape. It also taught me to be very vocal and persuasive in the pursuit of social change. Going from an urban environment to a rural setting taught me to be adaptable. Those four years really shaped my vision for how I live my professional life.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would share with prospective Grinnellians?

The biggest piece of advice I can offer any prospective student is that Grinnell College is not the college for just anyone. Grinnell not only offers the unique opportunity to learn about the unique world we are all a part of, it offers the opportunity for you to truly become an agent of change. If change isn’t what you were made to do — then this isn’t the school for you. If change is what you live for, then welcome.

What’s the most important way Grinnell College assisted you in becoming the leader you are today?

There were caring adults who wanted nothing more than to see me thrive — and knew exactly how to help facilitate that growth. That was new for me. They taught me the most important thing a leader needs in this world: true and active compassion. 

  • Taking a course with Kesho Scott, associate professor of sociology and American studies, is a must for anyone that appreciates witty, insightful banter — the kind that gives you an eye-opening dose of what we are doing to each other in this world.
  • Karla Erickson, associate professor of sociology, taught me that only I could dictate my path and pushed me to make tough decisions as my major adviser.
  • Kara Lycke was a soundboard for the frustration I felt the more I learned about the injustices in our education system.
  • Judy Hunter had the patience to really teach me how to put my feelings and thoughts into words at the Writing Lab.
  • Katherine McClelland helped me overcome my fear of math so I could pass my statistics class.
  • The late Howard Burkle indulged all my life questions — and my appetite, I should add — as my Posse Mentor.
  • Charlie Duke gave my Posse a home away from home when Howard could no longer do that.

Alemán currently works at NBCUniversal in the Page Program, Talent Development Group.

Why are Manhole Covers Round?

Why are most manhole covers round? Sure, it makes them easy to roll and slide into place in any alignment. But there’s another, more compelling reason, involving a peculiar geometric property of circles and other shapes. Marc Chamberland, professor of mathematics and statistics, explains curves of constant width and Barbier’s theorem.


Celebrating Pi Day

Pi Day is upon us! It is always held on March 14, since Pi starts with 3.14. The latest video from Professor Marc Chamberland's youtube channel, Tipping Point Math, asks "How Many Digits of Pi are Useful?" With trillions of digits crunched out by supercomputers, one wonders whether these numbers have more utility than wall-papering a room. In the video, five answers are given to the question.

Changing the Face of Science

Jessi L. Smith, a noted expert on social psychology, will deliver the Scholars' Convocation at noon Wednesday, April 1, in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101. The lecture is free and open to the public with a free pizza lunch provided.

Smith, a professor of psychology at Montana State University, has conducted extensive research on theories of stereotypes, with a focus on understanding the practices and policies that create equitable environments. At MSU, she chairs a 47-member team charged with enhancing faculty diversity and equity in order to foster learning among all faculty and students.

Smith's talk, titled "Changing the Face of Science: How to Create a More Diverse and Inclusive STEM Community," will feature Smith's work in experimental social psychological science. Smith will present her findings on the prevalent role of unintentional biases within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community, and discuss how to create more equitable environments in these fields.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Rosenfield Center has accessible parking in the lot to the east. Room 101 is equipped with an induction hearing loop system. You can request accommodations from Conference Operations.

Choose Your Own

Are you ready to shape your own learning? The individually advised curriculum at Grinnell College puts you in charge.

There’s only one required course outside of your major, the First-Year Tutorial. So each semester you’ll have 16­–18 credits for exploring the academic world.

Regardless of the courses you choose, you’ll learn how to think critically, to communicate well orally and in writing, and to work collaboratively with a diverse group of people.

You’ll have a guide for your academic explorations. Your First-Year Tutorial professor will also serve as your academic adviser until you declare a major.

Finding Unexpected Interests

One of the main reasons Emma Lingle ’18 chose Grinnell was because of its open curriculum. “It gives you time to figure out what you want to do,” she says. During her first semester, fall 2014, she took courses in anthropology, environmental systems science, French, and her tutorial, A History of Food in the United States.

Anthropology was a new subject for Lingle and she thoroughly enjoyed it. “I love the idea of learning about different cultures,” she says, “and because I love to travel so much I like the idea of knowing the origins of so many people’s ways of life.”

So when it came time to register for spring classes, another anthro class was at the top of her list. Lingle’s adviser, Assistant Professor of History Al Lacson, says, “I am thrilled when students identify an unexpected intellectual interest.”

He likes to ask students why they find a particular academic discipline interesting. “It’s important for their growth to think about the kind of questions and issues that matter most to them,” he says.

Lingle also appreciates Grinnell’s reputation in the sciences. To flesh out her technical side this spring, after going light on it last fall, she’s taking chemistry and intro to statistics. “College isn’t the time where you close off your possibilities for the future. College is something that should open you up to all the possibilities,” she says.

Lingle says, “A lot of my friends knew what they wanted to do already, at the end of our first semester.” That can be intimidating for students like Lingle, who is still exploring. But she found reassurance from Lacson.  

“There’s a reason students don’t need to formally choose a major until their second year,” he says. “The point of college is to help students figure out their interests — not just service interests that were developed as high school students. College years provide students with an opportunity to determine the kind of public and private self that they want to fashion for themselves.”

Designing Your Own Major

Students who don’t identify a major quickly may also find reassurance in the story of Amul Gyawali ’15. An international student from Katmandu, Nepal, Gyawali chose Grinnell because he wanted the option of taking classes in any department he might find interesting. He says, “You have the opportunity of developing a side interest. Academically that helps you. You end up getting a well-rounded education.”

One class that especially shaped Gyawali’s direction was History of the Modern Middle East with Caleb Elfenbein, assistant professor of history and of religious studies. “The class opened my eyes,” Gyawali says. “It made me realize how important the colonial legacies still are in the region and how interested I was in the subject.”

Gyawali was so interested that he developed an independent major in colonial and post-colonial studies with Elfenbein and Shuchi Kapila, professor of English, as his advisers. “Grinnell’s open curriculum helps you take ownership of your education,” Gyawali says. “At the same time, you’re working very closely with your advisers. The adviser-student relationship is what makes it all work.”

Gyawali adds that the professors have the highest degrees in their field — they know their stuff. “They also work hard to get to know you — your personal interests and your academic interests,” he says. “So when they give you personal, well-crafted advice for your sake, it makes it a little bit more comforting.”

Whether you pursue an established major or craft your own, the individually advised curriculum puts you and your intellectual needs and desires at the center.

Emma Lingle ’18 is from Webster Groves, Mo. Amul Gyawali ’15 is from Katmandu, Nepal.

Finding Faculty Mentors

At Grinnell, finding professors who want to mentor you is easy. Working with smart, engaged students is what professors love.

So when Karen Shuman and Chris French, associate professors of mathematics and statistics, decided to offer a summer research project to first- and second-year students, they had more students apply than they could accept.

“We thought we’d try a Mentored Independent Project (MIP) that would give students a taste of research and the mathematical writing process,” Shuman says. “Our hope was that the experience would encourage students to continue to take mathematics and statistics courses and to apply for MAPs [Mentored Advanced Projects, available to second- and third-year students] and off-campus programs in subsequent summers.”

Shuman and French selected six students to participate in the MIP. All had completed linear algebra or beyond. Lizzie Eason ’17 and Caleb Leedy ’16 were interested in math but had never done research before and wanted to find out what it was like.

Rachel Knak ’17 saw the project as a way to “solidify my decision to become a math major.” 

The Benefits of Math Research

During the first two weeks of the five-week MIP, students spent six hours per day learning about graph theory and spectral theory. For the next two weeks, they explored their own projects, with guidance from Shuman and French. In the final week, students focused on writing up their results and giving mini presentations to each other.

“The best part of the MIP was I got to do whatever I wanted to do with math,” Knak says. “I needed help from Karen and Chris, but my work was a lot more original than most math classes.”

“I got to dig in deep to what numbers mean,” Eason says. “I had more creative freedom.”

“Now that I understand math research itself,” Leedy says, “the process isn’t so foreign. It’s been very interesting and rewarding.”

French notices quite a difference among math students who’ve done research. Shuman agrees. “These experiences do far more than a year of courses.”

Developing a Community of MIPsters

“There was an energy and enthusiasm I haven’t seen before,” Shuman says about the students who became known as the MIPsters. “That was partly because of the community they formed.”

Students talking and gesturing towards at a white boardFrench agrees. “Caleb Leedy did really nice work on a project involving writing computer code to compute certain characteristics of graphs. Rachel Knak, meanwhile, was doing a more theoretical examination of certain aspects of graphs. I got so excited when the two students joined forces, and Rachel realized her project could be advanced because of Caleb’s code. “

“You could hear the cheering in the corridor,” Shuman says.

It wasn’t just the MIPsters supporting each other, though.

“Karen and Chris were super supportive,” Eason says. “They pushed us enough to get to the answers ourselves and helped us figure out what to look for.”

“They attacked problems in different ways,” Knak says.

Even though Shuman and French are married, Shuman says, “We’d never done mathematics together before. We weren’t sure how it would work, but in the end, we decided we’d like to do more math together.”

Joining forces to help students grow intellectually — that’s something Grinnell does well.

Lizzie Eason ’17 is majoring in math and theatre and is from Lamoni, Iowa. Rachel Knak ’17 is majoring in math and religious studies and is from Burlington, Iowa. Caleb Leedy ’16 is majoring in math and economics and is from Maitland, Fla.

Art to Algorithms

“Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?” That’s often the eye-rolling question in a first interview.

For Natalie Larson ’06, the quick answers could be “NASA,” “Norway,” and “ ’net congestion” — a few of her hefty résumé builders since graduating with honors as an art major eight years ago.

“At Grinnell, I oscillated between choosing philosophy and studio art as a major, but after taking time off to pursue life as a Carmelite nun (another exploration), and subsequently dealing with many inner philosophical battles, I chose art.” She credits faculty members Bobbie McKibbin, Matthew Kluber, Jill Schrift, and Lesley Wright as influential mentors.  

Grinnell, though, came after Larson found a math error on a national standardized test while in high school, but before she discovered a mistake in the GRE, which led to work for The Princeton Review and ACT. These experiences she counts among her “most satisfying to date,” followed quickly by “my internship at Harvard in 2010 and the 2011 program on quantum computing I attended at MIT, which were extremely gratifying. Learning about the strange, mind-bending, humanity-altering potential consequences of quantum computing from foremost researchers was an amazing experience.”

Art to algorithms

Larson in flight suit in front of planeWhat qualified the artist to conduct research in quantum computing? After graduation from Grinnell, philosophy was still on Larson’s mind. “I found myself drawn more and more to logic, eventually realizing that I should just study pure mathematics,” she says.

In 2012, Larson earned a second bachelor’s degree, double majoring in mathematics and computer science with honors from Vanderbilt. She also attended NASA’s Aeronautics Academy, where she wrote software to simulate in-flight Internet usage. Today, she’s in the midst of a Ph.D. program in computer science from the University of California, San Diego.

“In my Ph.D. research I study Internet congestion, both from a technical point of view, and a socio-economic point of view, looking at reasons why networks might be motivated to allow certain pathways to remain congested,” Larson explains.  

For example, “In early 2014, we saw especially heavy congestion between Cogent – one of Netflix’s transit providers – and virtually all other service providers with the exception of Cox, which has a special agreement with Netflix. When Netflix agreed to pay Comcast this March, nearly all congestion on paths between Cogent and other service providers disappeared,” Larson says.

“Identifying sources of congestion and finding ways to mitigate them can make the Internet fairer, faster, and more reliable.”

Larson’s research is funded by a Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), in return for her commitment to work for the DOD the next two summers and at least three years upon completion of her doctorate.

This summer, she’s working at the Simula Research Laboratory in Oslo to analyze congestion in Norwegian mobile broadband networks. And in her spare time, she ran a marathon in Helsinki to prepare for another in Oslo – all leading to her next goal, “my first 100-mile ultra.”

“When I ran my first marathon at Grinnell in 2005, I thought, ‘I’ll be satisfied if I never achieve anything else in running!’ but meeting that goal opened up the possibility for new ones. In 2007 I qualified for the Boston Marathon, and last year completed my first 50-mile ultra. I’ve already run two marathons this year (San Diego and Helsinki) and will run another (Oslo) in less than a month.”

Possible, probable, Grinnell

How is all this possible? Larson makes it sound so, well, Grinnellian. “By emphasizing ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, holding classes in a discussion format, and heralding the value of many different disciplines and the connections between them, a liberal arts education gives us an appreciation for diversity — of vocations, of opinions, of ways of thinking — and an ability to think exceptionally critically and creatively.” About art, algorithms and Internet congestion.

For the Love of Science

Before classes begin, the Grinnell Science Project (GSP) brings together selected students who are interested in science and creates a community that helps them feel comfortable with college life both inside and outside the classroom.

“GSP was a huge blessing. For one thing, the program got me a head start on understanding the confusing passageways of the mysterious Noyce Science Center. But it did so much more than that. I met a lot of people who shared my common interests, was acquainted with professors that I had class with later in my college career, and gained a lot of confidence in myself during GSP,” says Lizzie Eason ’17, who participated in the program last year.

GSP students meeting with a birdOne aspect of the program is a week-long pre-orientation  program.  Over the course of a week, students learn about the services and structures of the College.

The program responds to different learning styles — favoring workshop- and project-based classes in addition to lectures — and provides both role models and contexts for the study of science. “Grinnell students feel that they are part of a scientific community, we accommodate different learning styles with different pedagogical approaches, and we involve students in faculty research from the beginning of their experience here,” says Jim Swartz, Dack Professor of Chemistry.

Faculty members discuss various aspects of Grinnell’s academic program and strategies for excelling in science and mathematics courses. The GSP students participate in both sample classes and a research project.

“It was nice to just get used to the college environment without having to stress about classes. I could take time to really make friends, get advice from professors, and just enjoy myself, which is something I don't think I would have had much time to do if I had come to Grinnell when classes began,” says Eason.

Students work together to solve a puzzleIn the early 1990s, Grinnell observed that students — especially women, first-generation college students, and students of color — would enter Grinnell intending to major in the sciences, then fail to do well in the introductory courses and choose a major in another division. With data gathered from students, the College discovered that environmental and socioeconomic factors were interfering with students’ academic success in the sciences.

GSP teaches science the way science is actually practiced. It also creates a peer as well as faculty and staff support network for students. In addition to GSP participants, lots of other students have benefitted from curricular changes that accompanied the Grinnell Science Project.

“One of the most significant measures of success is that components of the Grinnell Science Project are now mainstream throughout our science curriculum,” says Swartz. Grinnell’s introductory biology course, which is required for all biology and biological chemistry majors is project-based. Introductory computer science courses are designed similarly, and mathematics, chemistry, physics, and psychology courses use a number of active learning techniques.

In the three years before GSP began, an average of 42 women and eight students of color graduated with science degrees each year. By 2008, each number had more than doubled. Ninety women and 21 students of color graduated with science degrees that year. Hundreds of students have participated in GSP, and thousands more benefited from curricular changes and mentoring relationships established by the program.

Lizzie Eason ’17 is from Lamoni, Iowa and has not yet declared a major.

2014 GSP students, faculty, and staff

2014 Grinnell Science Project