Diversity

Inclusive Excellence at Northeastern aims to fix the institution

Leia Dwyer
Feb. 14, 2020

In the higher education-dense Boston region, Northeastern University always has stood out for its rich tradition of experiential learning. So it comes as no surprise that Mary Jo Ondrechen has employed this concept in launching the Inclusive Excellence program at Northeastern, with a focus on flipped classrooms and encouraging faculty to share with each other best practices for diversity and inclusion.

Ondrechen-Mary-Jo.jpg
Courtesy of Mary Jo Ondrechen
As a woman studying physical chemistry with few female mentors and a member of the Mohawk Nation, Mary Jo Ondrechen says she felt invisible when she was a student but always did her best to push ahead.

Though she speaks in an unassuming way about her initiatives at Northeastern, Ondrechen herself navigated higher education at a time when few resources supported diversity and inclusion, so she has a deep personal connection to these efforts. As both a woman studying physical chemistry with very few female faculty mentors and a member of the Mohawk Nation, she says she felt invisible but always did her best to push ahead despite challenges.

Ondrechen and Wendy Smith, professors of chemistry and biology, respectively, heard the call for preproposals for the first round of the Inclusive Excellence competition back in 2015. After their full proposal was selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for funding, the project launched at Northeastern during the 2017 fall semester and has continued for two years.

The goal of Inclusive Excellence is to make the science majors more welcoming to diverse students, Ondrechen said, including first-generation college students.

“We don’t need to fix the students,” Ondrechen said. “We need to fix the institution.”

A professional evaluator measures the Northeastern program’s success with both students and faculty and is just starting to acquire early data. Students and faculty associated with the program take before-and-after surveys, and the change in number of students graduating with science, technology, engineering and math degrees will be a key metric of success.

Ondrechen doesn’t mince words about traditional academia. Research shows that lecturing is “just about the worst way to teach,” she said. However, most faculty learned by this method, so they employ it in their classrooms today. She aims to educate her colleagues on the benefits of interactive classrooms where students drive their own, often collaborative, learning — classrooms where they feel more engaged and, as a result, more included.

Monika M. Wahi/Wikimedia commons
In the higher education-dense Boston region, Northeastern University stands out for its rich tradition of experiential learning.

Ondrechen employs the flipped classroom approach in her own teaching, reversing the traditional split of homework versus lecture and putting more emphasis on active, team-based problem solving in the classroom as opposed to instructor lectures. Research shows that while this flipped approach is good for all students, it offers the greatest benefits to women and minorities, she said. She was happy to eliminate individual quizzes in her quantum chemistry and spectroscopy class in favor of team-based quizzes, she said; students can solve harder problems together through discussion and collaboration than they would be able to tackle individually.

As part of Northeastern’s Inclusive Excellence program, workshops educate faculty on basic principles of diversity and inclusion in the classroom. Ondrechen said attendance at some of these workshops has exceeded her expectations. The workshops are followed by teaching circles where about a dozen faculty members gather to discuss their practices and open tough conversations about bias and inclusion that faculty then carry with them back to their own classrooms.

Ondrechen emphasizes the advantages of these peer-to-peer discussions and notes that the small, easily implemented changes often have the greatest impact. One of her favorite examples is eliminating implicit bias in calling on students in the classroom by using a stack of index cards with students’ names and drawing at random.

And the best measure of success in an interactive classroom?

“The noise level.”

Leia Dwyer

Leia Dwyer is a Boston-area biotech and pharmaceutical industry professional.

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