Hall of Science offers STEM programs chance to grow, diversify
Internal data shows that students, faculty do not think departments are “representative”
As the University continues to make progress on the construction of the new Hall of Science, AU’s STEM community is looking forward to the benefits of a new space on campus.
Along with the completion of the new building, AU’s plan to expand its STEM program will also include hiring more faculty, according to biology professor Meg Bentley.
While 78 percent of STEM faculty at AU are white and 59 percent are male, Bentley said the hiring process will give the University the opportunity to increase faculty diversity.
“Students need to see someone who looks like them in the front of the classroom,” Bentley said.
The STEM community is not waiting for the new building to begin discussions on improving their representation. At the end of March, STEM students and faculty held a summit to discuss inclusive excellence and underrepresentation in the STEM community at AU.
At the summit, Bentley, along with Kathryn Walters-Conte, who directs the professional sciences master’s program in biotechnology, presented data on the demographics of STEM students and faculty as well as students’ experiences with programs at AU.
According to their findings, only 18.8 percent of faculty and 27.9 percent of students think there is sufficient “representation” within the STEM student body. Their survey also found that only 12.5 percent of faculty and 23 percent of students think there is sufficient representation among the STEM faculty at AU.
Some underrepresented students say that finding community is already hard enough in a STEM program that feels overshadowed by the University’s focus on political science and international relations. Jorge Goyco, a sophomore biochemistry major, said it is often difficult for young STEM students to find other people in their major.
“You can find any kid that’s an SIS major and be friends with them, and you can find any political science major to be friends with, because this is a school that is very much in that nature,” Goyco said. “STEM majors don’t have that same look.”
To help give his classmates that sense of community, Goyco co-founded the Underrepresented Students in STEM club. As the club’s president, he is working to bring awareness to events and projects of STEM students that might otherwise go unnoticed by the student body.
Building that community, Goyco said, also required drawing greater attention to the research of STEM students and faculty. Most people on campus are not award of faculty and student research ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to the behavioral effects of cancer in mice.
“These amazing opportunities that we have all over the University, no one knows about them,” Goyco said. “Nobody knows that we are a pretty advanced research school.”
Goyco also said that the Hall of Science could potentially be a space that brings together work from the various STEM majors.
“It will be nice to actually have a single building where we can all meet, share ideas and maybe even help each other out in our research and studies,” Goyco said.
Currently, many of the different STEM departments are scattered across campus. In some cases, they are utilizing older buildings that face problems with accessibility. Goyco pointed out that Hurst Hall, where many STEM classes meet, does not have any elevators, preventing students with limited mobility access from accessing classrooms or faculty offices.
The Hall of Science will provide new facilities for biology, chemistry, environmental science and neuroscience departments. The building will feature state-of-the-art research laboratories, as well as a new lecture hall to take the place of the old lecture space in Kreeger.
As life science students like Goyco await the building’s completion, physics, math, statistics and computer science students already know the benefits of finally having a designated space on campus.
The Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building, which opened in 2017, has provided those departments with a space for research and collaboration. Mercy Griffith, a senior majoring in mathematics and secondary education, said that the building has been invaluable for her academic experience.
“I don't think the importance of just having your own place where you can go to your classes, and talk to your professors, and see your friends, and work together can be understated,” Griffith said. “It has transformed the math department.”
Beyond just the physical space to pursue their work, Griffith said she appreciated AU bringing greater awareness to the STEM program.
“You feel like your work matters, you feel like you mean something to the University,” Griffith said. “The statement that I’m going to build a space for you to pursue your work, it was a really cool feeling.”
Faculty in the math department also benefited from the move to Don Myers. Michael Limarzi, a professor in the department of mathematics and statistics and sponsor of the Not Math club, said that because the math department had been so spread out, he moved through four offices in only seven years of teaching at the University.
Those logistical problems made it difficult for students who became interested in the STEM program to learn about the different offerings and resources on campus, Limarzi said.
“Just knowing that everyone's in the same place gives you a reason to go to the building and hang out in the building, because you know, no matter what classes you're taking, your professor’s going to be there,” Limarzi said.
Limarzi and Griffith are optimistic that the Hall of Science will deliver similar benefits for the science department.
“The new building offers to the chemistry and life science departments what Don Myers gave to our program,” Griffith said.
But more than just new labs and grants, STEM students said they hope the new Hall of Science will give the community a chance to get to know the work of AU’s STEM programs.
Jai Jacobs, a junior math major, said she wishes more people would learn about the research and achievements of STEM students and faculty. She hopes the university community can work to “close the gap between STEM and non-STEM students.”
“As much as this is about math, it’s not really about math,” Limarzi said. “It’s about the community of people who study math.”
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's April 2019 print edition.