To the Macalester STEM Community, with particular emphasis on the Physics and Chemistry departments;
We are STEM students and alumni across the Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Neuroscience majors, in addition to the pre-health track. We are writing this letter because we have significant concerns about how our respective departments have handled student mental health, diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility across our years at Macalester. This has been especially evident in the Physics and Chemistry departments, with the introductory sequences of those two majors weeding out far more than their fair share of STEM students across disciplines at Macalester.
We write this to both bring attention to these issues and to urge our departments in the strongest terms possible to make change. It is too late for the shifts we propose to benefit many of the juniors or seniors who have signed this letter, but we care deeply about making Macalester a better place for everyone who comes after us. In particular, we are recommending the changes outlined in this letter because time and time again we have seen the culture and structure of STEM majors at Macalester fail those who should be most supported — students of color, first-generation students, students with disabilities. It is not enough for STEM departments to pay lip service to equity and accessibility and then continue making curricular and hiring choices that benefit only those who already have the most advantages.
In the wake of uprisings for racial justice across the United States this summer, the Chemistry, Physics, and Biology departments published statements that pledged, in various forms, to work to uproot racism, commit to increasing diverse representation, and enact structural change in the aforementioned departments.1,2,3 Seeing those commitments, we were hopeful some change toward a more just, equitable, and accessible culture and curriculum of STEM at Macalester would occur with the full support of faculty, specifically tenured and tenure-track faculty, and staff. We have been disappointed not only with the lack of structural change to support Black students, but the lack of structural change to broader, and too often toxic, STEM culture at Macalester.
While there have been some changes, those that have occurred have happened—to our knowledge—near-exclusively through work tirelessly initiated by students. These range from Diversity and Equity in Chemistry’s push to diversify the Chemistry seminar speaker series; the very first community meeting in the Physics department one year ago; and the Physics and Astronomy Club inviting a speaker to address the “leaky pipeline” in higher ed along with continuing to hold departmental discussions. When students have looked to faculty for collaboration on these programs and others over the past year, they have consistently found the most support from those with the least institutional power. This includes an untenured faculty member in Environmental Studies leading the push to have a departmental worker focusing on antiracism initiatives; contingent and untenured staff and faculty in Chemistry working on an initiative to showcase student belonging in STEM; and newly-tenured faculty and MAX center staff working to support a student-proposed Chemistry summer bridge program. Finally, a shift to more progressive syllabi in physics introductory courses has been led by the newest tenure-track professor. We commend these efforts, and look to them as a model for productive future student-faculty collaboration. However, to achieve previously voiced goals around diversity, equity, and inclusion across the departments there must be active departmental and interdepartmental work to both support and lead initiatives across all levels of seniority. This means that tenured and chaired professors must involve themselves directly in the unfolding DEI efforts taken up by these less-powerful community members, instead of merely signing off on them. Unfortunately, over our time here, and especially with the advent of the module system, we have too often seen work to better departmental culture, curricular improvements, and student health and well-being stall when it is deemed too radical or not in keeping with the ways departments have been run in years past.4
To give specific examples of lingering issues: we have consistently witnessed and experienced that STEM students at large, but particularly first- and second-year students, are overworked and under-supported. This is most egregious in the chemistry and physics departments, which teach their introductory sequences with a “trial by fire” pedagogy that is unfit for learners without extensive pre-college prep in the subjects. In this system, only the most experienced students make it through with good scores and experience, while the rest are expected to keep up or get left behind.14 While the steps referenced in the previous paragraph have begun to help in important ways, they are only the beginning of the work necessary to open up the gates to more equitable STEM education at Macalester. It has been shown in pedagogical research that introductory courses can be a make-or-break period in underrepresented STEM students’ path through the majors, but the Chemistry and Physics departments have rarely structured their curricula as if that is the case.4,7 In light of the fact that students come into STEM with differing levels of pre-college experience, Chemistry and Physics must strive to level the playing field via more robust support resources and curricular shifts, many of which we detail at the end of this letter, both departmentally and in collaboration. At present, instead of allowing for a focus on students’ academic growth and welcoming them into the field, the departments’ pedagogical decisions all too often filter out the most vulnerable students. This is an unfortunate irony, given the statements in support of equity and inclusion they have made over the past year.
This differential has only been exacerbated by the module system. While there have been commendable steps toward improving student experience in the departments, including a move toward open-book tests in some Chemistry classes, some syllabus reform in introductory physics, elimination of the capstone paper requirement in Biology, and a larger proportion of contract for B grading methods across STEM departments, too many professors have prioritized course material over student health, expecting students struggling with the effects of a pandemic, massive time zone differences, issues with international travel restrictions, the most contentious presidential election in living memory, and the loss of Kai Davis in Fall 2020 to manage immensely difficult coursework with little flexibility in regard to deadlines and little care for their well-being. We had hoped the pandemic, for all of the awful effects it has had, might provide STEM departments at Macalester, with, again, particular emphasis on Physics and Chemistry, the opportunity to take a hard look at their pedagogy and culture and begin the shift to something more humane, just, and equitable. Instead, we have seen senior chemistry students drop the major with one class remaining due to the inflexibility of professors around homework deadlines, first-year international students in introductory classes struggle to get help in office hours or turn in assignments on time because of double-digit time zone differences, and students being required to attend hours outside of the mandated class time with little respect for the effects on their lives. In short, students are experiencing massive burnout due to expectations of egregiously long hours in and out of class in the name of covering all the content seen in a normal year. In light of this, it is hard to be optimistic that meaningful change will occur without continued pressure from students.
While we believe the detrimental effects on student health and well-being are more than enough reason to enact departmental change, the harshness of Macalester’s Physics and Chemistry course and major structures impede students’ ability to learn—most acutely for underrepresented students. There is significant evidence that stereotype threat—underrepresented students’ awareness of perceived inferiority due to their visible identities—affects student study and examination outcomes.8 Macalester’s STEM departments are white enough that this should always be a relevant consideration, but especially when administering classes with exam weights above 50% that can regularly climb into 70% or above. Inclusive classroom practice can be achieved through structural changes to the modes of instruction, like giving students time to think before answering questions, encouraging participation of all students, and folding in small group work to classes.9 While there are clear benefits to enacting these changes, especially given the department’s expressed commitments toward improved diversity and inclusion, they have not been sufficiently attempted in Physics or Chemistry course sequences at Macalester. While shifts towards a more active-learning teaching style have been tried in introductory physics classes, this is not enough, for example, to combat gender gaps in participation.10 The Physics and Chemistry departments must reckon with the fundamental inequities in their classrooms if they seek to best serve their students, which we believe they do, even if it requires a process of uncomfortable change to traditional teaching methods.
The seniors who have signed this letter have less than two months remaining before we graduate from Macalester. In the time since we arrived on campus we have all struggled with the fact that no matter how much we care about the subjects we are studying, departmental pedagogy and culture of the physical and biological sciences at Macalester rarely reflects that kind of care for students. Whether it is hearing talk of peers being failed out of an introductory class after missing a laboratory for mental health concerns, students being forced to take a zero on a test after failing to notify a professor of a medical emergency within the 24-hour deadline, underrepresented students reporting that they feel uncomfortable or disrespected in the classroom or office hours, poor capstone mentorship, or the fact that Physics has one of the worst levels of gender equity of all majors on campus (and the highest post-declaration drop-out rate)11, we are constantly reminded that the departments seem to care more about placing five students apiece in top graduate programs per year than the health and well-being of their students writ large.
We write this not in the spirit of condemnation but of constructive criticism. We hope, sometimes despite our own experiences, that faculty actively want better departmental experiences for students. We also understand that the pandemic, the module system, and this difficult year in full have put faculty — particularly those who are contingent or who have caretaking duties — in positions of tremendous stress as well. However, the simple fact of the matter is that faculty are permanent members of this institution with the power to change it, while we, as students, are here for just four years. We have spent as much time as we can working to make this school better, and it is now up to the faculty of the Physics and Chemistry departments, along with the pre-health and Neuroscience tracks, to shift their departmental culture and pedagogical practices to those that— not just in words, but in practice — value diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is the responsibility of these departments and Macalester as an institution to make these changes, not the responsibility of students, preceptors, or SI leaders.
To that end, in addition to the recommendations in the paragraphs above, we have appended to this letter after the signatories a list of concrete steps for change — some which may be implemented immediately, some which are on the timescale of a hiring process — which the departments must take to live up to the lofty statements they put out last summer.
Nick Velikonja (Physics ‘21)
Conor Broderick (Chemistry & English, ‘21)
Brooke Hoppe (Chemistry, ‘21)
Brennan Arnold (Physics, ‘21)
Diego Lopez Gutierrez (Physics, ‘21)
Rory McCollum (Biology, ‘21)
Jonathan Alvarado-Gomez (Physics, ‘21)
Hannah Gilbert (Biology ‘21)
Karina Polacek (Neuroscience ‘21)
Will Wagner (Biology ‘21)
Elizabeth Cain (Chemistry & AMS ‘21)
Jennings Mergenthal (Biology & History ‘21)
Hayley Zacheis (Biology & International Studies, ‘21)
Maya Lawnicki (Biology ‘22)
Jason Beal (Physics ‘22)
Emmy Curtiss (Physics ‘21)
Karlee Taylor (Physics & Geology ‘23)
Margaret Shepherd (Physics/Astronomy, ‘23)
19. Tema Zulu (Physics & Political Science, ‘23)
20. Ben Koenigs (Geology, ‘20)
Riley McGlasson (Physics/Astro, ‘20)
Joshua Bartz (Physics & CS, ‘20)
Jacob Hetrick (Physics, ‘20)
Travis Ahrenhoerster (Math, ’20)
Camden Moser (Chemistry, ‘20)
James Cannon (Physics, ’20)
Shreya Nagdev (Chemistry, ‘22)
Maya Wills (Biology, ‘21)
Julian Bonilla Diaz (Biology, ‘22)
Nicolas Diaz de Leon (Neuroscience, ‘21)
Sarah Lipstone (Computer Science & Physics, ‘21)
Briah Cooley (Biology & Psychology, ’21)
Camille King (Neuroscience, ‘21)
Anael Kuperwajs Cohen (CS and AMS ‘21)
Sarah Taft (Physics and Astronomy ‘19)
Gabriel Berman (Pre-med/Anthropology, ‘21)
Helen Frieman (Neuroscience, ‘22)
Olive Tambou (Neuroscience, ‘21)
Saskia Sackner-Bernstein (Biology, ‘21)
Alyssa Bulatek (Physics/Astronomy & AMS, ‘20)
Spandan Buch (Geology, ‘21)
Sophia Oldfield (Chemistry, ‘22)
Amy Arbetman (Undecided, ‘24)
Mikayla E. (Environmental Studies & Studio Art ‘22)
Mordechai Tinney (Psychology ‘24)
Chi Anigbogu (Religious Studies & Biology ‘21)
Madeline Braun (Chemistry & Biology, ‘21)
Elyse Blank (Biology, ‘21)
Penny Ahlfeld (Physics, ‘23)
Ingrid Kilde (Chemistry, ‘20)
Tylyn Page (Physics/Astronomy & Chemistry, ‘20)
Ella Clark (Neuroscience, ‘20)
Victor Wang (Biology, ‘21)
Sasha Mochida (Neuroscience & Biology ‘20)
Rina Morisawa (Biology, ‘20)
Stephanie Konadu-Acheampong (Psychology & Linguistics ‘21)
Imaan Azeem (Chemistry, ‘22)
Kellie Stellmach (Chemistry, ‘20)
Sarah Chinski (Physics/Astronomy, ‘20)
Sarah Noble (Biology & Spanish ‘22)
Menal Abdella (Chemistry, ‘23)
Tokosang Lokule (Biology & Anthro ‘22)
Aisha Mohamed (Biology ‘23)
Brook Geleta (Neuroscience ‘22)
Ishan Rayen (Physics ‘24)
Juan Pineda (Neuroscience ‘24)
Jonathan Hauser (Biology/Biochemistry ‘23)
Yosan Worota (Biology ‘23)
Leah Hailu (Neuroscience 20’)
Bernadette Clermont (CS & Japanese ‘22)
Reece Wenholz (Political Science/Anthropology ‘24)
Anna Jonaus (Undecided, ‘24)
Aiyowie Usoh (Psychology & Neuroscience, ‘24)
Kimberly Lambert (Neuroscience/Undeclared ‘24)
Roswell Jennings Kalfus (Biology, ‘24)
Zara Ammar (Premed, ‘24)
Shalu Patel (CS, ’23)
Dan Bially Levy (Undeclared, ‘24)
Emma Squires (Environmental Studies — Biology Emphasis, ‘24)
Vyen Hayag (Biology, ‘24)
Jasmine Stephenson (Chemistry & Biology, ‘23)
Pallavi Shoroff (Environmental Studies & Biology, ‘22)
Clara Lo (Psychology & Neuroscience, ‘24)
Jewel Kerr (Biology, ‘23)
Alekos Tetradis (Undeclared, ‘23)
Andrew Fidal (Biology, ‘24)
Alec Deegan (Neuroscience, ‘23)
Avery Munster (Biology & English ‘23)
Emily Drexler (Neuroscience 23)
Neshua Aguilar (Undeclared, ‘23)
Adri McCall (Neuroscience & THDA, ‘23)
Liz Marquez-Gomez (Chemistry, 21)
Ramla Muhudiin (Undeclared, ‘24)
Eliza King (Biology, ‘23)
Sarah Tannert-Lerner (AMS, ‘23)
Lia Pak (Biology & Political Science, ‘23)
Ceilidh Smith (Biology, ‘23)
Elika Somani (IDIM: Global Health, ‘22)
Jonah Wexler (Geography, ‘23)
Nick Howland (American Studies ‘23)
Ellen Graham (AMS, ‘21)
Kailleen Perez Garcia (Political Science ‘21)
AJ Papakee (American Studies, ‘23)
Celia Johnson (Geography, ‘21)
Josephine Otter (Psychology ‘21)
Ava Cutler (Mathematics ‘21)
Hannah Catlin (Political Science, ‘21)
Adriana Saso-Graves (Philosophy, ‘21)
Fatiya Kedir (International Studies, ‘21)
Saiido Noor (Biology ‘23)
Lanise Prater (English ‘23)
CJ Denney (Biology/ES ‘23)
Jeanarry Rodríguez Hernández (Neuroscience ’24)
Nick Mancusi (Undecided, ‘24)
Hassan Ismaeel (Computer Science, ‘20)
Sar Velick (Geography, ‘23)
Finn Odum (Geography, ‘21)
Josh Davidson (Political Science, ‘24)
Emma Smith (International Studies, ‘21)
Xavier Webber (French & Linguistics ‘24)
Jay Fanning (Environmental Studies & Economics, ‘25)
Margaret Allen (Undeclared, ‘24)
Miles Latham (Undeclared, ‘24)
William Tandy (Undeclared, 24)
Halvor Morris (Undeclared, ‘24)
Finn Schmidt (Computer Science, ‘24)
Jay Anderson (AMS (intended), ‘24)
Zoe Roos Scheuerman (Undeclared, ‘24)
Xavier Pittman (English – Creative Writing, ‘24)
Olivia Litke (Undeclared, ‘24)
Teresa Padrón (Latin American Studies, English, ‘21)
Tenzin Nyima (CS, ‘23)
Hanan Sherka (Psychology & WGSS, ‘23)
Gloriah Omwanda (Undeclared, ‘23)
Lydia Yoder (AMS & Psychology, ‘21)
Nicole Frey (AMS, ‘21)
Katia Sievert (Philosophy, ‘21)
Mariah Loeffler-Kemp (Political Science, ‘24)
Jenna Jereb (Political Science, ‘24)
Teddy Holt (English, ‘22)
Dalton Greene (English, ‘22)
Ailsa Burke (Studio Art, ‘21)
Daniel Chechelnitsky (Computer Science & Linguistics, ‘22)
Shelby Kruger (English, ‘22)
Nicole Bednarik (Biology, ‘23)
Roheyatou Ceesay (Geology ‘23)
Osmar Del Río (Biology ‘21)
Kylie Byrd (Neuroscience, ‘23)
Marika Sullivan (Math, ‘22)
Immediate Accountability Steps:
– Commit to the publication of specific, detailed, and public departmental DEI plans, including but not limited to plans to improve departmental pedagogy, hiring practices, and research access by the end of Module 4. Ensure that these plans include concrete, date-specific steps for their fulfillment (including adding a student representative to department meetings by Fall 2021) so that departments can be held accountable by their students, staff, and faculty. These plans should be easily accessible via the Macalester departmental websites.
– Recommend tenured faculty attend Radical MacACCESS events for inclusive pedagogy between April 13-16th as an actionable, specific step toward improving STEM teaching.
– Publicize and support the pilot summer bridge-to-organic program which is being developed between the MAX center and the Chemistry department, and start active discussions in Physics for a similar program.
– Eliminate GPA requirements for all Macalester research fellowship applications, as they consistently and systemically weed out marginalized students.
Concrete Recommendations for Future Change
Make all introductory (i.e. General Chemistry I, Physics I, etc.) classes pass/fail. This system is currently in use at schools like MIT and Swarthmore, providing students time to adjust to college and aiding in student retention at a time when many students are at highest risk of attrition from STEM tracks.12,13
Ongoing support for bridge programs for incoming first-year students focused on the introductory sequences of the Physics, Chemistry, and Biology majors.
Cross-departmental collaboration to develop and implement best practices in pedagogy for introductory sequences, specifically in regard to improving the pre-med track and its culture.
As introductory STEM classes have some of the largest reach to get first years on track for a healthy college experience, ensure that resources like the Health and Wellness Center and Disability Services are clearly emphasized during the first classes (not just in the syllabus). In addition, explicitly inform students about research/work study opportunities, including how to reach out to prospective advisors and that these positions can and should be paid. Research systems may be obvious to faculty, but many first-generation students, or students whose families do not come from academia, do not realize that research (including PhD. programs) are paid opportunities, or how to access them as undergraduates. Finally, highlight a diverse set of alumni who are now working in the field as examples to undergraduates in introductory courses.
Ensure more diverse SI and MAX center tutor hires. Too often those students recommended by faculty are those who have already had substantial advantages, and their demographics often do not reflect the makeup of the departments writ large.
Coordinate across departments and with the Macalester Administration to plan for cluster hires and interdepartmental support for underrepresented faculty members.6
Ensure that incoming students are properly trained in how to write laboratory reports, as many students arrive with limited experience from high school science classes.
Work toward curricula that include wider ranging and more diverse historical context for how science is historically constructed and performed in the present.
Reduced focus on high-stakes assessments. Instead of having 70-90% of students’ non-laboratory grades being linked to four assignments, as is often the case in test-based General Chemistry and Organic courses, consider models that have proven to work both pedagogically and to reduce student stress in Physics or MSCS.
More focused community-building in first and second year classes to counteract the intensely competitive atmosphere that the Chemistry department can foster. c. Directly include student representatives in the hiring process for all faculty searches (visiting and permanent) starting with the finalist selection stage, not just gather student input on finalist job talks.
Creation of small-group study pods, potentially guided by an upper-class student mentor, so that students who are unused to reaching out for help directly are able to have a support structure. Consider looking to the ISP mentor program for inspiration.
Requirement for students to attend at least one office hour in the first month of general chemistry courses— many times students feel like they are imposing on faculty’s time or that they should not be asking for help, which consistently hurts those students with the least exposure to how liberal arts academia works.
Adjust or eliminate grading curves, particularly in intro classes, to accurately reflect student performance in a broader context and reduce incentive for departmental competition. Low grading curves can result in a large number of intro students failing classes or attriting out of majors, as well as incentivizing an atmosphere which discourages collaboration, all of which can disproportionately affect marginalized students.
Consider implementing more project-based learning opportunities of the sort that Prof. Green is exploring in Module 4 Analytical Chemistry
Maximum cap on exam weights in the rubric.
Promoting community in the classroom, such as in-class work, discussions on the social context of physics, and more substantial project-based learning.
More focus on open-ended assignments, and on environments where students can make mistakes without being punished. (Professor Ter Veldhuis is doing a great job with this in EM2).
Increased encouragement to collaborate on homework assignments through group problem sets, etc.
Diversity and inclusivity training for faculty, student SIs, and tutors.
Review of the SI program for introductory physics classes with the intent of making it a resource where students can find support. This may include a required visit to an SI session on the first homework, lessened weekly HWs in order to provide students the time to practice at SI, or increased collaboration with expertise in the MAX center
Promoting contact with other programs that provide mentorship for undergraduate students in STEM (especially those underrepresented) such as NMC, APS, AIP and availing faculty-student mentorship if possible.
Macalester Biology Department. “Biology Department cautions college against in-person instruction this fall,” The Mac Weekly. June 2020.
Ellsworth, G., Schmidt, B. “Academic departments publish statements in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing” The Mac Weekly, July 2020.
“[Chem-Major] #ShutDownSTEM day.” Departmental Communication. June 2020. 4. Namandjé, Bumpus, “Too many senior white academics still resist recognizing racism.” Nature. July 2020.
Flaherty, Colleen. “Women Are Falling Behind”
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/10/20/large-scale-study-backs-other-researc h-showing-relative-declines-womens-research. Inside Higher Education, October 2020. 6. Chilton, Elizabeth. “The Certain Benefits of Cluster Hiring”
https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/02/06/how-cluster-hires-can-promote-faculty -diversity-and-inclusion-opinion. Inside Higher Education, February 6th, 2020 7. Harris et al. “Reducing achievement gaps in undergraduate general chemistry could lift underrepresented students into a “hyperpersistent zone.” Science Advances. 10 Jun 2020: Vol. 6, no. 24, eaaz5687. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz568.
Taylor, Valerie Jones, and Gregory M Walton. “Stereotype threat undermines academic learning.” Personality & social psychology bulletin vol. 37,8 (2011): 1055-67. doi:10.1177/0146167211406506
Tanner, Kimberly D. ”Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” CBE—Life Sciences Education vol. 12,3 (2013): 322-331. doi:
Aguilon et al. “Gender Differences in Student Participation in an Active-Learning Classroom.” CBE—Life Sciences Education vol 19,2 (2020). doi:
Macalester Institutional Research STEM After-Declaration Retention Data https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1kWVC8qLrlCdg3q0prD9eyVnhRt7tdNsR?usp=sh aring
MIT Registrar’s office. “Grading Policies.”
https://registrar.mit.edu/classes-grades-evaluations/grades/grading-policies 13. Swarthmore Registrar’s office. “Grades.”
See Dr. Paulette Vincent-Ruz’ first annual Social Justice Chemistry Seminar presentation.
Further Reading on Equitable Teaching in STEM
Jarvis, Claire, “Chemistry educators try ‘Ungrading’ Techniques to Help Students Learn.” https://cen.acs.org/education/undergraduate-education/Chemistry-educators-try-ungradi ngtechniques-help/98/i16. C&EN, APRIL 26, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 16
Widener, Andrea, “Few Gains for Minority Chemistry Professors.”
https://cen.acs.org/articles/95/i44/Few-gains-minority-chemistry-professors.html#:~:text= Note%3A%20Underrepresented%20minorities%20(URM),and%20graduate%20degrees %20in%20chemistry. C&EN, NOVEMBER 6, 2017 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 44
“Responses to 10 Common Criticisms of Anti-Racism Action in STEM,” IwAR0CNEKTAR54uF2_K8Li4IKKTQNmujyQY4a1lae8bBPeDu8DxclTsJ0sQF8. 4. Weiman, Carl, “It’s Not “Talent,” it’s “Privilege,”” APS News, October 2020, Volume 29, Number 9.
Leslie, Sarah-Jane, et al. “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines” Science 16 Jan 2015: Vol. 347, Issue 6219, pp. 262-265 DOI: 10.1126/science.1261375
Prescod-Weinstein, Chanda. “Making Black Women Scientists under White Empiricism: The Racialization of Epistemology in Physics.” Volume 45, Number 2 Winter 2020. 7. Asai, David J. “Race Matters.” VOLUME 181, ISSUE 4, P754-757, MAY 14, 2020