UConn Receives Inclusive Excellence Grant From Howard Hughes Medical Institute

The financial value of the $505,000 grant for UConn is over a six-year period

Wilbur Cross on a fall day on Oct. 15, 2019.

(Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded UConn a grant of $505,000 to study transformative strategies to advance inclusive learning experiences for students and enhance student belonging.

HHMI invited select colleges and universities in the United States to build their capacity substantially and sustainably to advance student belonging, especially for those who have been historically excluded from the sciences.

“Sustaining advances in diversity and inclusion requires a scientific culture that is centered on equity,” says Blanton Tolbert, HHMI vice president of science leadership and culture. “In science education, increasing the number of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds must go hand in hand with creating inclusive learning environments in which everyone can thrive.”

Lack of diversity is most notable, but not limited, to the STEM fields.

The financial value of the grant for UConn is over a six-year period and is complemented by extending funds of knowledge principles to organizational learning: 104 schools receiving funds as part of the Inclusive Excellence 3 (IE3) initiative; $8.625 million will go to a Learning Community Cluster of 14 institutions that UConn is paired with.  Distinct from previous HHMI education initiatives, the unique funding mechanism emphasizes cooperation over competition. IE3 started with a learning phase during which the community envisioned how support of each other during implementation may look like.

The UConn team that prepared the school’s proposal include Martina Rosenberg, Director of Teaching and Learning Assessment at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL); Andrew Moiseff, a professor of physiology and neurobiology and Associate Dean for Behavioral and Life Sciences; a professor-in-residence and Director of Undergraduate Studies Xinnian Chen; and Associate Vice Provost Peter Diplock of CETL.

“Our core team has been working on this grant and engaging in the national learning community network since 2020,” says Rosenberg. “This award is an opportunity to highlight the complexity and value of teaching-related activities. We believe that teaching cannot be effective without being inclusive and equitable. It will take more than professional development offered to faculty, it takes committed people at every single level and a sustaining community.”

A closer look at the challenge question chosen by UConn in answer to HHMI’s call underlines why collaboration within the institution is important when going forward:

How can we evaluate effective inclusive teaching, and then use the evaluation in the rewards system including faculty promotion and tenure?”  requires a departure from deficit- to-achievement-oriented thinking and practices that work in synergy.

During the next years the two anchor points will be language around understanding of inclusivity around teaching and learning as well as instructor professional development. In the executive summary of the grant proposal, the team wrote: “Articulating concepts like inclusive teaching with precision allows us to communicate about and to recognize observable behaviors that institutionalize educational justice. UConn is specifically interested in how operationalizing frameworks in different contexts work and gathering field data related to these questions:  What do faculty and students currently consider to be characteristics of inclusive and -per extension-excellence in teaching? Are views of the two groups aligned, and what evidence is reasonable to make judgements about inclusive teaching excellence?

“We are aiming at departments among our 130 undergraduate degree programs that wish to impact faculty mindsets but lack high visibility of traditional STEM classes. A synergistic UConn proposal, HHMI Driving Change, focusses on gateway courses with high enrollment. Activities are building on existing internal and external training to advance capacity for equitable teaching, educator engagement to operationalize UConn’s mission and commitment to ongoing improvement of individual and programmatic practices.”