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By Krisy Gashler
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  • Department of Entomology
  • Department of Global Development
  • Natural Resources and the Environment
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Horticulture Section
  • Health + Nutrition
  • Plants
This is the second in a series of stories detailing actions CALS students, faculty and staff have taken over the past year to make our community a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place for everyone. Here, we highlight college efforts to design a more inclusive curriculum and detail some of the courses CALS faculty have developed or adapted to address issues of racial, social, gender, economic and environmental justice.

Growing up in Harlem, Keya Dutta ’24 didn’t fully realize the extent to which her community was forced to endure environmental hardships not required of wealthier Manhattan neighborhoods. Four out of Manhattan’s five bus depots are in Harlem, bringing excess noise and pollution. Harlem has fewer parks and trees per square foot than wealthier, whiter parts of Manhattan, exacerbating the effects of summer heat islands.

Last spring Dutta, a global development major, took the course Toxic Inequality: Environmental Justice in America, offered by Shorna Allred, professor in the Departments of Natural Resources and the Environment and of Global Development. It was in this course that Dutta says she learned how systemic and intertwined the issues of environmental, racial and socioeconomic injustice are. The course led to a summer internship for Dutta with WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

“In Harlem – and in many places throughout the world – we are disproportionately affected by climate change, by high heat, by air pollution, because we have less political and economic power,” Dutta said. “That’s something that really solidified for me in this class.”

Allred and Rebecca Morgenstern Brenner, lecturer in the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, have developed a full-semester course, Environmental Justice and Policy, which will be taught for the first time in spring 2022.

“Every environmental issue has very strong social dimensions as well,” Allred said. “A lot of the disproportionate impacts of environmental pollution and climate change fall on vulnerable communities and communities of color. We thought it was important to shed light on past and present structures of inequality that have created and continue to create these disparities.”

Inclusion as a learning outcome

CALS is committed to supporting diversity, equity and inclusion throughout its curriculum, said Carlyn Buckler, associate professor of practice in the School of Integrative Plant Science and chair of the CALS Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Over the past year, the diversity committee worked closely with the CALS Faculty Executive Committee to revise the college’s learning outcomes, with an eye toward equity and inclusion. Learning outcome six, on developing cultural awareness, is central to the college’s diversity commitment, Buckler said.

“We want our students to build an awareness of various cultural practices and values and beliefs, but more than that, the students need to demonstrate that they have an understanding of systemic oppression at various levels,” she said. “It’s more effective to do this as a learning outcome because then it becomes intrinsic to the curriculum.”

The revised learning objectives will be phased in for all undergraduates over the next two years, Buckler said.

CALS was the first college at Cornell to have a diversity learning outcome and course requirement, said Sahara Byrne, senior associate dean for academic affairs and strategic programs. This year, CALS leadership increased the undergraduate diversity requirement from three to six credits, a change that will be phased in over the next several years, she said. Courses that meet the requirement are determined by a special CALS committee that evaluates curricula universitywide to identify courses that have at least 50% content that critically analyzes historically or contemporary marginalized communities, she said.

“Our CALS requirement is not as simple as taking a course that promotes exposure to other cultures; it is about gaining a deep perspective on long-standing systems of inequity and oppression,” Byrne said. “It has long been a priority of CALS to build a diverse community that actively promotes equity and inclusion, and this work is ongoing.”

Cultivating inclusive classrooms

The School of Integrative Plant Science’s new strategic plan specifically calls for implementing accessible and inclusive curricula and classrooms, said Chris Smart, professor of plant pathology and director of SIPS. A big part of that work is ensuring that students are meeting the CALS cultural awareness learning outcome, said Gregory Peck, associate professor of horticulture and member of the curriculum working group for SIPS’ Diversity and Inclusion Council. For example, seniors in plant sciences will be asked to reflect on which courses, assignments or experiences during their time at Cornell have helped them understand the history, values, politics, communication styles, economy, beliefs or practices important to members of another culture, he said. The committee is also working with the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) to map the plant science curriculum to better understand how well diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues are being addressed, and to identify gaps where additional courses, experiences or trainings are needed.

“The only way to ensure that we achieve greater diversity in the plant sciences is to put in the time, resources and energy to facilitate the process,” Peck said. “There is no quick or easy solution to systemic biases in academia, but through the collective work of many people throughout Cornell, DEI initiatives can be pushed forward.”

SIPS has already undertaken several trainings to make their classrooms more inclusive and equitable. SIPS doctoral candidates Josh Garcia and Kavya Krishnan took CTI’s Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom course and then facilitated workshops for SIPS faculty and other graduate students on the role of TAs in cultivating an inclusive classroom. Learning communities met weekly to discuss how the material applied to their teaching and what steps they could take, individually and as a community, to promote inclusive pedagogy, Garcia said.

“Participants from the workshop and learning communities appreciated the space to have these conversations and learn new evidence-based teaching strategies for promoting equity,” Garcia said.

What does an inclusive curriculum look like?

Botany

“Wherever you are, plants have been part of the landscape for many thousands of years and already have meaning to the cultures that were here and used them, appreciated them and understood their role in a broader ecological system. What is the depth of knowledge that you’re presenting to your students, that you are including and building on as part of your scholarship? We definitely give a lot of credit to Westernized knowledge, but what are some of the traditional, indigenous forms of knowledge we can bring into our research and teaching?”

- Chelsea Specht, the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Biology

Teaching strategies

“STEM education research has shown that active learning strategies – where students learn by doing activities in class rather than listening to lecture – promote engagement with and retention of material, especially among students from underrepresented groups. Informal strategies are important, too: Ice breakers on the first day can foster community in a classroom, and treating accommodations as the norm rather than the exception can create inclusivity for disabled students.”

- Josh Garcia, doctoral candidate in horticulture

Plant pathology

“Development of new crop varieties must take into account the needs and preferences of the farmers and consumers who will be growing and eating them. If we develop a new bean but it doesn’t taste right or have the texture that will work with a family recipe, people will not adopt it. We can have the most resistant variety or the most yielding variety, but if it doesn’t fit with that recipe, that culture, that dish they’re preparing, years of research could be down the drain.”

- Maricelis Acevedo, research professor in the Department of Global Development and SIPS 

Development

“There are deep disagreements about the whole idea of development. Some in our field are developing technologies they believe will advance economic, human and ecological well-being; and some reject the whole idea of development, believing it’s based in colonial thinking. Our syllabi reflect this diversity of thought in the topics the classes will cover and the readings students will be assigned to ensure we study perspectives from both the Global North and the Global South.”

- Scott Peters, professor in the Department of Global Development

 

Plant science

“Every facet of the cannabis industry touches on diversity, equity and inclusion, from the lack of minority producers to the racist legal and policy issues still prevalent today. In my class, I bring in about 10 guest speakers – growers, retailers, lawyers, policymakers and entrepreneurs – to give students a full picture of the culture, politics and legal issues in this unique business. It is important for our students to be learning from traditional, academic sources, but they also need to learn from other people’s lived experiences.”

Carlyn Buckler, associate professor of practice in the School of Integrative Plant Science

A faculty member talks to students about plants.
Active learning.
A man holds a bean pod.
A student studies in Mann Library
Hemp

The science behind bias

In her course Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in STEM: The Science Behind Bias, Corrie Moreau teaches about past and present injustices, and about strategies to undo them. Moreau, the Martha N. and John C. Moser Professor of Arthropod Biosystematics and Biodiversity, developed the course in collaboration with two graduate students; they were inspired by George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The class learns about historical horrors like the Tuskegee experiments and gynecological experiments on slave women, as well as modern-day “misuse of science to continue to perpetuate bias and racism and exclusion,” Moreau said. One study, for example, involved a population-genome analysis of people in the UK and compared it against those individuals’ socioeconomic status. The study claimed to find more than 100 gene loci associated with socioeconomic status.

“This study presented this as if we can actually predict how much money you’re going to make based on your genome, which is not true,” Moreau said. Historical and social factors, such as England’s long-standing class culture, which has prevented most people from moving up or down the socioeconomic ladder, were not considered. “This is a complete misuse of this kind of genome-analysis method,” she said.

Sometimes people respond to learning about historical injustice by believing such attitudes have been left in the past, Moreau said. But the UK study was published in 2019 in Nature Communications.

“There is ongoing bias and exclusion and racism at the highest levels of scientific publications,” Moreau said. “Being aware of these problems is the first step in undoing them.”

In addition to learning about bias and discrimination, students learned about progress that has been made toward inclusivity. And they read studies describing recommendations and strategies to root out bias, she said.

“It got pretty dark and difficult, but we came out more hopeful at the end because we all identified ways that we could make positive changes as individuals and in the institutions and departments where we belong,” Moreau said.

Engaging across differences

The faculty of the new Department of Global Development held diversity, equity and inclusion as central goals as they worked over the past several years to merge the former Department of Development Sociology, International Programs-CALS and the master’s program in international agriculture and rural development.

One of the key elements in creating the department was developing an undergraduate curriculum, and a new global development major will be launched in fall 2022. Curriculum development involves selecting which classes will be part of the major, reviewing proposed syllabi and choosing representative readings, all of which raise issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, said Maricelis Acevedo, research professor in the Department of Global Development and SIPS, and past DEI committee chair for Global Development.

Inclusion takes into account personal factors like race and gender, but also diversity in student experiences and beliefs, Acevedo said. The Master of Professional Studies program, in particular, draws students from all over the world with a wide variety of personal and professional experiences: Some students are older and have families, some have worked for governments, in industry or for nongovernmental organizations, and they bring those perspectives with them, Acevedo said.

“As we look at achieving diversity and inclusion in the classroom, it’s not just about incorporating diverse readings and authors, it’s also about leaving space for and valuing students’ experiences,” she said.

Politics are central to the study and implementation of global development, so creating a classroom and a department culture that is inclusive and respectful of diverse worldviews, experiences and philosophies is especially important, said Scott Peters, professor and current chair of the department’s DEI committee.

“We want students to be aware that there is deep disagreement about both the means and ends of development. We want to invite them to understand the significance of these disagreements with an open mind. At the same time, we don’t want to shave off the edges of people’s beliefs and commitments,” Peters said. “So the challenge is: How do we maintain space for individuals’ strongly held convictions while also having a respectful environment where we learn from engaging across those differences?”

Enabling everyone to thrive

Chelsea Specht, the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Biology and CALS associate dean for diversity and inclusion, said demand for DEI-focused courses and values has been increasing for years but especially since the racial reckoning precipitated by Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020.

“This is the most diverse class we’ve ever had, and our student body is pushing, as they should be,” Specht said. “I think the demand is not necessarily for particular courses, but for seeing that these values of diversity, equity and inclusion are infused across all of our courses, spaces and interactions.”

As part of that effort, Specht is leading a project, funded by the CTI, to generate materials to teach students fundamental critical thinking skills. The materials will be adaptable to a variety of CALS gateway courses. Mark Sarvary, director of the Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories, and Christina Schmidt, lecturer in SIPS’ Active Learning Initiative, are collaborators.

“If we’re going to give everyone the skills they need to succeed in our courses, we need to bring forward this part of the hidden curriculum: critical thinking tools,” she said.

The materials and strategies that Specht and her colleagues are developing will be active learning and team-based. While such classroom strategies benefit all students, they are especially helpful in engaging students who are neurodiverse, first-generation or are marginalized and thus underrepresented in higher education, she said.

All instructors will be able to take advantage of these materials to ensure that the readings and activities in their classes are accessible to all students and inclusive of diverse perspectives, she said.

“We already teach this amazing wealth of courses, but oftentimes we center particular, often colonistic perspectives. So how can we decolonize our curriculum? How can we center some of the voices that have been marginalized in our classrooms? How can we think about how each of the topics we teach contributes to racial, social, environmental, climate, economic justice?” Specht said. “We can create an environment in which we all can excel, and by doing so it will be a richer environment for everyone.”

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.