Teaching the next generation of scientists the value of inclusion

With over 10 years of experience as a lecturer under her belt, Yvonne Davila is passionate about teaching and learning – designing engaging curricula and assessments that challenge science undergraduates to meaningfully understand their subject. As part of this endeavour, she wants to ensure students are engaged by a curriculum that genuinely reflects their diversity.

‘Supporting today’s students means that our learning design must be accessible, targeted and inclusive,’ she says.

Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, co-lead on the Developing Inclusive Science Curricula (DISC) project and former lecturer in learning design at UTS, agrees.

‘Teaching and learning is evolving at a slower rate than student cohorts are diversifying. Students from minority groups face greater challenges than their ‘traditional’ counterparts in achieving academic success,’ she says.

Approaches to teaching – whether that be in terms of managing the learning environments or the design of curriculum – affects not only the makeup of university classrooms and labs but potentially also the direction of future scientific research.

‘Not only do we need to teach science, we need to teach science in a way that is contextualised within the ethical and social considerations of broader society that graduates will face as they become professionals. Science does not happen in a vacuum,’ explains Lucy.

Thirty-two undergraduate students and 25 professional and academic staff took part in the Social Impact Grant funded DISC project, working in teams to address diverse issues including the challenges faced by international students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, those with disabilities and those undergraduates who come from low socio-economic groups.

One of the DISC team’s most impressive achievements was the development of a unit in a large first year biology subject that teaches the difference between gender (a social concept) and sex (a biological one). The unit was co-designed by a student who had previously taken the subject and academics, and was first taught in 2019.

A draft guide to inclusive teaching in science was also developed by the DISC team.

According to Yvonne, engagement was baked into the project design from the beginning, ensuring the ongoing impact of the project on all those involved.

‘The DISC project adopted a student-staff partnership approach from the outset. Our shared goals, focus areas, and a definition of ‘inclusive science curricula’ were co-created by the project group members.’

‘The DISC project really helped to engage our Science students and increase their sense of belonging at UTS. Many of the student participants are now active advocates for equity in the curriculum and their classrooms,” she says. “We’ve also developed teaching resources and staff capacity to contribute to creating learning environments in which all students can feel a sense of belonging and thrive.’

This is vitally important to the individuals involved but ultimately also to the wider educational community at universities, says Lucy.

‘Students from minority groups can face greater challenges arising from a low sense of belonging in their university, cultural and language barriers, being bullied or harassed on campus. If curriculum fails to reflect diverse identities, it fails to close the social divides in our society – which can and should be one of the main roles played by education.’

The Problem

University science courses have been slow to adapt to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student cohort. This can present challenges for students from minority groups, as well as having an affect on the relevance of what is taught in classrooms for all students.

The Response

Yvonne Davila and Lucy Mercer-Mapstone worked with undergraduate students and university staff to develop approaches to increasing inclusivity in university science courses – together they addressed diverse issues including accessibility for those with disabilities, and potential challenges faced by international students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

What helped accomplish this?

The Social Impact Grant was fundamental to the project’s success, without it the project is unlikely to have gone ahead at the same scale.

What has changed as a result?

The DISC team co-designed a first year unit which teaches the difference between gender (a social concept) and sex (a biological one). This was first taught to undergraduate biology students in 2019.

Download full case study