FIELD Outlook: Dr Roxanne Beltran

The role of field research in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in biology

One of my favorite parts of being a professor is teaching and mentoring the next generation of ecologists and evolutionary biologists, especially those that are underrepresented in higher education. Unfortunately, retention during college is a pivotal problem in biology. We lose many students between college admission and graduation, and a disproportionately high number of students are underrepresented minority students. I have focused a lot over the last few years on trying to build a better and more equitable system with which to train my students, especially in fieldwork that makes up most of my research.

During my time in college, a series of classes in nature helped me become more engaged and invested in my own education than I ever had before. I went camping for the very first time, learned how to count fish while SCUBA diving through kelp forests, and taught myself how to tell different cactus species apart based on how much the spines hurt. Instead of staying awake to memorize equations, I was staying awake to check rodent traps in the middle of the night. I was no longer learning math or working on my writing just to get a better grade. Instead, I was integrating these different subjects to solve real conservation issues. I felt a sense of purpose because I finally understood the context for the content I was learning in classes. My education was no longer about expectations and exams and competition and going through the motions of cramming and regurgitating information. Instead, it was about embracing community, connection, collaboration and about making lasting contributions to society. The friends I made in my field courses helped me persevere through coursework and I graduated from UC Santa Cruz with honors in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in 2013.

When I finished my PhD 5 years later, I started a postdoc co-advised by Erika Zavaleta, who had been one of the instructors of my undergraduate field courses. Together we built a phenomenal research group to understand how field-based learning and research may help close demographic gaps in participation and success in the sciences. Field courses include several potentially high impact services, including a team model for learning, cohesive learning communities, small class sizes, and frequent student-faculty interactions. In these ways, courses build scientific skills; confidence living and working outdoors, and maybe most of all shared memories and community that could help students persevere through the trials and tribulations of their undergraduate education. But, it is unclear if field courses have a measurable outcome on student success. We took foundational ideas from the education literature - like the importance of teaching in non-traditional ways – and applied it to the field courses that we teach.

The fact is, traditional teaching methods require a wide range of students to conform to a single way of thinking, usually in a way that disproportionately excludes under-represented students. When we walk into a classroom, we don’t leave our identities at the door – we bring our identities with us. Our identities shape the way we interact with each other, and the way we interact with information. There is a growing body of education research showing that teaching is more effective when it includes hands-on activities, teamwork, and real research projects. Inclusive teaching requires us to deconstruct the status quo. On college campuses, these active learning activities usually happen in a classroom or in a lab, but a growing number are taking place in the outdoors. Education in nature is more than a one-way transfer of information in a sterile environment. Instead, it facilitates real life experience and encourages comradery. Bringing students into nature serves nature too because it prepares students to undertake positive environmental action.

To figure out how learning in nature impacts student success, we first tracked the trajectories of the 29,000 undergraduate students admitted to our institution, UC Santa Cruz, in the last decade and surveyed 500 of the students that participated in field courses. We learned that at admission, there were no differences in the proportion of students admitted as ecology and evolutionary biology majors across demographic groups; however, just 5 years later at the time of graduation, under-represented minority students were 16% less likely to graduate with EEB majors. This retention gap was mostly due to a lower rate of college completion and partly through attrition to other majors. So, we wanted to know whether an early field science experience could improve student outcomes and STEM diversity. Using surveys and interviews, we discovered that field-based courses doubled the students’ confidence in core science tasks like identifying plants and animals and working as part of a team. In turn, confident students felt that they belonged, and that they could succeed, which had direct benefits for their academic persistence. We found that field course students were more likely to graduate and to have higher GPAs, especially if they were economically disadvantaged or under-represented minority students. In other words, courses in nature narrowed the achievement gap across demographic groups.

But these field courses are an elective opportunity for students at our institution and they can be expensive, ranging from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars in course fees. There are many barriers to taking field courses that we don’t always think about or might not recognize if they don’t apply to us, having to do with financial means, access to word-of-mouth and other information about opportunities, previous experience, a sense of belonging in field science, and constraints around commitments to families and communities. To create a field course in a way that makes it possible for students of all backgrounds to take means identifying and removing these barriers. In our paper recently published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution led by Erika, we explored potential design characteristics of field courses based on what students told us about which factors of field courses worked well to minimize those barriers like scholarships for course fees, a simple application, recruitment materials with diverse participants, flexibility, and time for community building.

Our colleague Alexandra Race explored three main themes to explain how and why this field course improved STEM persistence. First, students emphasized the value of minimizing barriers, and specifically minimizing experience gaps among students in the class. To achieve this, we suggest bringing students into the planning and preparation process, providing equipment and food so everyone has what they need, and pre-teaching outdoor skills like toileting and sleeping. Second, students emphasized the importance of relationships, like sharing experiences and developing a peer network during unstructured time like campfires and meals. Third, students enjoyed being able to see their own progress clearly by repeating similar projects or field living situations.

Field courses are just one way to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in biology. Our group has also been involved with several efforts in our Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department to change the game for our students. The graduate students in our department led by Melissa Cronin spearheaded an effort to create guidelines for anti-racist pedagogy and practice that is a fantastic resource for departments that want to shift their climates. The checklist includes items like including diversity statements on syllabi and promoting a growth mindset in the classroom, along with sharing land acknowledgements before department events and using scientist spotlights to feature marginalized scientists.

In addition to discrimination based on ethnicity and race, we must consider instances of sexual harassment and assault in field sciences. Led by Melissa Cronin, we reviewed literature pertaining to gender bias and sexual assault instances in field settings, and found that this issue is unfortunately prevalent and very under-studied. One of the first steps we took was to create a bystander training called Building a Better Fieldwork Future that is now being offered regularly at our institution and others. I am happy to see the many ways in which departments are moving forward regarding DEI efforts, and I want to underscore the importance of building on the performative efforts (metrics like number of hires, number of recruited students, etc) with transformative efforts (personal and group connections to and critical reflections on efforts happening in departments). We need to be critically conscious about how we name, how we reflect, and how we act on these issues.

I am grateful and hopeful that our collective efforts can narrow demographic gaps in achievement and participation in STEM. As a community, I am hopeful that we are turning a corner and moving closer to education equity. We have a real opportunity here to help underserved students succeed and to tackle society’s big issues. Innovative solutions to today’s challenges require a diversity of thought. We can cultivate diversity of thought by ensuring that equally talented students get equal chances to succeed. I’m excited to continue this work in the field with seals and with students to work toward a more comprehensive and equitable understanding of our natural world.