Letter to the Editor: Recommendations for an inclusive undergraduate plant science classroom

This letter by Katelyn Butler, Carina Collins, and Jennifer Robison is the 5th in our series on diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM disciplines. Read the editorial call for letters here: Sowing the seeds of equity and diversity in academia and STEM disciplines.

Butler K, Collins C, Robison J (2021) Recommendations for an inclusive undergraduate plant science classroom. Plant Cell. First published June 19, 2020. doi 10.1093/plcell/koab167

Dear Editor,

The undergraduate science classroom is one of the first places where students begin to identify as scientists (Schinske et al., 2016), yet many students that begin their scientific journey as undergraduates do not finish. In fact, in the USA, only 22% of Black students, 29% of Latine students, and 25% of Native American students remain in the STEM field six years after their first year in college, when compared with 43% of Caucasian and 52% of Asian-American students (Malcom and Feder, 2016). These data highlight the importance of improving undergraduate education for equity and inclusion in STEM. According to the US Department of Education, in 2019, baccalaureate degrees in Plant Biology/Botany were awarded to 300 white students but only 29 Hispanic/Latine students, 5 Black students, and 5 Indigenous students (US DOE, 2019). These data clearly indicate that plant biology undergraduate programs are not successfully supporting Black, Latine, or Indigenous communities.

Many factors have led to the lack of equity in plant biology. Due to the systemic racism that built the USA, Black and Hispanic communities have disproportionately lower access to greenspaces and nature (Casey et al., 2017Hoffman et al., 2020McDonald et al., 2021). This lack of greenspace access leads to a lack of opportunity to engage with nature and may lead to a higher plant awareness disparity. The plant biology community has long acknowledged the concept of plant awareness disparity where plants are often overlooked compared with animals (Parsley, 2020). Plant awareness disparity contributes to a lack of understanding and appreciation of the impact plants have on the environment and humanity. In addition to decreased access to greenspaces, there is a lack of representation in botanically themed children’s books: out of the 36 books examined, the main character was Black in two, Hispanic in four, and Indigenous in one (Goins, 2004). Therefore, a student’s first meaningful experience with plants and plant biology may very well be in an undergraduate biology class.

We argue that one of the best ways to improve equity and diversity in the plant sciences begins in the undergraduate classroom. Our classrooms are the first stop for the next generation of plant scientists, and we must engage students with inclusive and anti-racist STEM pedagogy. In this letter, we will discuss the importance of utilizing evidence-based inclusive teaching practices, as well as providing short- and long-term ways each of us can implement them in our classrooms.

The importance of active learning

One of the most effective ways to narrow the achievement gap and increase the persistence of historically excluded students in STEM is to integrate active learning and other evidence-based teaching practices into our classrooms. It has been established that traditional teaching methods—lectures and examinations—do not serve all students equally. Lecture-based teaching strategies have been demonstrated to uphold racial inequities in STEM classrooms (Harris et al., 2020). The exact reasoning is unknown, but it is clear that this style of teaching can be detrimental to the historically excluded students we desperately want to retain in STEM (Harris et al., 2020). Research has revealed many equitable teaching practices that we must begin to incorporate into our classrooms, most of which are based upon active learning techniques (Tanner, 2013Eddy and Hogan, 2014Theobald et al., 2020). It is our responsibility, as college instructors, to design our courses to be inclusive and equitable spaces for all students.

Inclusivity and equity must be at the forefront of our minds as we design our courses. We should be asking ourselves “Are we setting up our classes in a way that allows all students to engage in the learning process?” This question should guide every decision we make: how we design our syllabus, our assessments, and the examples we choose to highlight for each class period. Moreover, while a commitment to inclusive teaching requires a sea-change in how we approach our classrooms every day, there are tangible and meaningful ways we can begin to create a more equitable classroom right now. These strategies have been demonstrated to increase the performance of all students while providing extra benefit for those who have been historically excluded, thereby narrowing the achievement gap (Eddy and Hogan, 2014). Here, we highlight a few changes that can be made in designing and teaching classes to make them more equitable learning spaces. We further encourage the reader to examine the literature cited here, which provides detailed context, evidence, and additional strategies to create a more inclusive classroom.

Easy and effective active learning strategies

There are simple ways we can improve the inclusivity of our classrooms now—starting at the next class period! Integrating a variety of active learning strategies into the classroom helps ensure that all students have a way to engage meaningfully with the material (Tanner, 2013Theobald et al., 2020). Active learning strategies do not need to be a big production. Here are some examples of easy activities that foster student engagement quickly. Clicker questions or minute papers (brief prompts all students write an answer to), such as prompts about electron flow around photosynthesis or anatomical features, provide an opportunity for each student to engage with the material, not just those who feel comfortable enough to raise their hands. These activities can be modified for virtual learning by using one of the many online polling apps, such as Poll Everywhere. For a more creative and collaborative lesson, students can apply what they’ve learned about leaf anatomy by designing a leaf that is adapted to a particular environment (Butler, 2020). This activity builds classroom community and provides a new way for students to work with the material. To ease student anxiety, these activities can be ungraded and presented as opportunities for practice and learning, rather than assessment (Sathy and Hogan, 2019). Using additional structured practice is beneficial for all students, especially those who have been historically excluded from the college classroom due to structural racism (Tanner, 2013Sathy and Hogan, 2019).

An additional low-stakes but impactful classroom change is altering class discussions to make sure a diverse set of voices is heard. Turning broad questions posed to the entire class into a “think-pair-share” activity is one method to increase discussion participation equally among students (Tanner, 2013). In this strategy, all students get a chance to process the question during the “think” portion and then engage in the discussion with a partner before sharing with the class. For example, after teaching about photosynthesis and cellular respiration, students can individually respond to the prompt “How can plants survive in an enclosed terrarium?” After they have been given sufficient time to come up with an answer alone, students pair to discuss their answers before going over the question as a class. Additionally, as students have a chance to double-check their answers with peers, there is an increased likelihood that any particular student will respond. To encourage new voices, group reporters can be selected at random (“Whoever woke up the latest should be prepared to report your group’s findings!”). The selection process for reporting should be announced at the beginning of the activity so students can prepare to share as opposed to cold calling, which can increase student anxiety (Cooper et al., 2018). It can also help to state that a response is desired from a certain number of students before moving on. Taking the time to wait in silence and explicitly stating that multiple responses are desired shows students that the instructor cares about all of their voices and not just the most confident ones (Tanner, 2013).

Longer-term strategies

There are several features to consider incorporating into the design of a new or existing course. Setting explicit expectations, enhancing course structure, and incorporating the works of diverse plant scientists will create a more inclusive learning environment. Setting specific learning objectives for each lecture period and using those objectives to design fair and explicit assessments gives all students the same guide for studying, which may ease student fears about course expectations. For example, “Draw the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis” is a concrete objective the students can work toward. Additionally, structuring multiple opportunities for assessment, and therefore growth, can further support an inclusive learning environment. If, for instance, the final course grade is based on three large examinations, any student who fails the first examination may immediately feel incapable of succeeding and give up. Incorporating frequent lower-stakes quizzes, reflective test corrections, and other methods of assessing learning, such as creative projects, provides additional opportunities for growth and learning (Sathy and Hogan, 2019). Setting clear expectations and classroom structure helps all students and provides extra benefit to historically excluded students, encouraging their persistence and success.

When choosing to highlight new research findings to enrich course material, it is important for instructors to use the work of diverse colleagues. As an added benefit, pictures or biographies of these colleagues could be provided so that students can actually picture themselves as scientists. Students may inherently know that scientists are diverse, but if the only examples they’ve seen of past and current researchers are those of the majority, they may fail to be able to recognize their own capacity to become a scientist (Schinske et al., 2016Le et al., 2019). The power of #BlackBotanists week and other #BlackInSTEM weeks is a testament to the importance of seeing diversity for student learning and motivation. In addition, when the instructor speaks directly to the importance of diversity and inclusivity, it helps to cultivate a safe and welcoming environment for all students (Tanner, 2013).

An easily implemented activity to increase diversity is to have students create biographies of diverse scientists (Robison et al., 2020). In this activity, each student writes a single biography that highlights a scientist’s professional and personal life. In small groups, students then read each other’s biographies to increase their exposure to the highlighted scientists. The most labor-intensive piece of this activity for the instructor is generating a list of scientists for students to feature. We recommend using the Diversify Plant Science database (https://rdale1.shinyapps.io/diversifyplantsci/) to find scientists to feature. The benefits of this database are that it is searchable and that it will allow instructors to build a list that fits their student body’s needs. As students will need to locate some personal material in order to humanize the scientist, we also recommend using profiles that include Twitter handles. Student prompts and rubrics for this activity can be found in Robison et al. (2020) linked here: https://www.asmscience.org/content/journal/jmbe/10.1128/jmbe.v21i3.2233.

Our goal is that the simple but effective classroom strategies provided here will have a positive impact on all students in the plant sciences, especially those who belong to historically excluded groups. If we can support the persistence of underrepresented students at the undergraduate level through effective teaching, we should begin to see an increase in the diversity of our laboratories, companies, and departments: the field of plant biology will be better off for it.

Conflict of interest statement. There are no conflict of interests.

Katelyn J Butler1, Carina A Collins2, Jennifer D Robison3

1Department of Biology, School of Science and Engineering, Anderson University, ORCID 0000-0002-3252-4808

2Department of Biology, College of Arts and Sciences, Marian University, ORCID 0000-0001-9150-1924

3Niswander Department of Biology, College of Pharmacy, Natural & Health Sciences, Manchester University, ORCID 0000-0001-8883-2044

For correspondence: katelynjbutler@gmail.com, ccollins@marian.edu, JDRobison@manchester.edu