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Nate Brown speaks in zoom window

Penn State math professor discusses inequity in higher STEM education

7 March 2024

Nate Brown spent much of his career as a theoretical mathematician and is currently a professor of mathematics in the Penn State Eberly College of Science. After 20 years of research in mathematics, Brown shifted his focus to education — specifically, studying inequity in STEM higher education.

Brown shared some of his research and engaged in a lively discussion with more than 80 online and in-person attendees during his recent presentation, “Inequity in STEM Higher Education,” part of the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Virtual Sustainability Series at Penn State Lehigh Valley (PSU-LV). Brown appeared virtually via Zoom.

“It was fascinating to hear his history, going from a theoretical mathematician to someone focused on inequity in STEM higher education,” said Jennifer Parker, associate professor of sociology and member of the JEDI faculty committee. “He pointed out things we can be on the lookout for in our teaching strategies.”

During his talk, Brown shared notable statistics about the disparities between white students and students of color in STEM fields: “The biggest disparity is between white men and Black women,” Brown said. “Among white men who start college the same time as black women — 48% of white men graduate with a STEM degree, and only 28% of Black women. There is something happening institutionally that is causing those results.”  

As there is no “one-size-fits-all” way of learning, Brown has found disparities often appear when an instructor relies on one teaching method.

"It’s important to understand there is no one simple checklist to incorporate inclusive teaching, although there are some principles," Brown said. "It’s really up to the teacher to go out and learn the general principles and implement them in your own specific course.”

Brown said that relying on a growth mindset, a willingness to try different delivery methods, and being open to student feedback are three important traits of inclusive teaching. The traditional “lecture and note-taking” method teachers have utilized for decades is no longer the single most effective learning method, Brown said.

“Had I been trained as a teacher, I would have learned there are other options,” Brown said. “‘Traditional’ is the only way of teaching for some. No one exposed us to the wealth of possibilities — active learning techniques are better forms of instruction. In the STEM fields, ‘traditional’ teaching is the norm. In my experience, there is a real divide between research mathematicians and mathematicians who mostly teach. Research mathematicians are very averse to change — teaching mathematicians are generally on board and try to serve their students as best they can.”

“One major thing with inclusive learning is to incorporate active learning activities, such as group projects or more hands-on type of work,” Parker said. “Research shows when we incorporate active learning techniques, it makes a difference for underrepresented groups in STEM. Active learning shows we care — it makes a big difference, and a bigger difference to underrepresented groups. I think we’ve always had those conversations, but maybe we haven’t understood the strategies in terms of impact on underrepresented groups. Empathy is very important.”

Parker said speakers are chosen for the Virtual Sustainability Series for different reasons. In Brown’s instance, his exceptional contributions, particularly pioneering work addressing inequities in higher STEM education stood out. Also important was the similarity of his research interests with those of PSU-LV student and JEDI Fellow Aryan Patel, who is exploring inequity issues within STEM at the high school level.

“This natural alignment presented a significant opportunity for learning with Aryan gaining invaluable insights from Nate Brown’s wealth of experience and expertise,” Parker said. “Also, [Brown] is a Penn State professor and mathematician — it’s unusual to have someone shift gears the way he has. He’s coming from a high level in the STEM field as a mathematician, so he has an important perspective from which we can all benefit.”