Challenge accepted: Leveling the playing field in science education

ASU receives $1 million to create more inclusive science program

June 20, 2018

In college, science is often seen as an exclusive field — one reserved only for exceptionally bright students. And for decades, academic leaders in higher education have used introductory science courses to “weed out” the so-called “unqualified” students. 

But the rules are changing, and the playing field is leveling out. Undergraduate biology classroom ASU will receive $1 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to create a more inclusive science program. Download Full Image

Arizona State University, along with 56 other schools, will receive $1 million in grant support over five years from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to engage in a process of culture change and work toward including all students in science learning, regardless of background.

“We know that student success is tied closely to feeling included in the scholarly life of ASU,” said James P. Collins, a professor with the School of Life Sciences and the lead investigator for the grant. “Our aim is to transition students from high school thinking to university thinking by creating a culture of inclusion. This will help students develop critical-thinking skills focused on ‘big picture’ questions rather than simple, test-driven content mastery.”

Each participating university will launch its own program to support the institute’s “Inclusive Excellence” initiative, which aims to catalyze schools’ efforts to include all students in science, especially underrepresented ethnic minorities, first-generation college students and working adults with families. 

ASU will begin by working with a diverse group of science faculty members to create a series of digital learning modules. These online tools, called “Exploration Experiences,” will be built around each faculty member’s research area and will serve curricular and developmental goals for first-year students. All first-year students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences will be required to use these modules during ASU 101, a required course for new students.

“This means that the impact of this program will be at scale — creating a place for all of our new students to reflect on what college entails and a metacognitive understanding of the types of discovery that will happen in each of their specific majors,” said Paul LePore, associate dean of student and academic programs at the college.

“For the thousands of high school students exploring what majors might be right for them, this program will let them take a deep dive into the wide range of majors our college has to offer. In no small way, these efforts will offer prospective students and their families an unparalleled recruiting tool — accelerating the transition that successful students must make from just attending ASU to becoming members of the dynamic learning communities that exist within each of our undergraduate programs,” he added.

Biology laboratory course

With this grant, ASU will develop new, online learning modules that will allow students to explore majors and develop critical thinking skills. Photo by Sandra Leander/ASU

Although ASU is well-known as a leader in enrolling diverse and underserved student populations, one area where Collins and his team believe improvements can be made is in ensuring that these students succeed in their college experience. The team aims to help faculty members embrace a more inclusive style of teaching, where instructors understand their responsibility to help diverse students succeed. 

By teaching faculty members how to use new technologies that foster interactivity and adaptivity to student needs, they will be empowered to build experiences that meet students at their own learning levels and tutor them to succeed at their own pace. 

Ariel Anbar, a professor with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, said: “The education technology revolution is creating powerful new ways to draw new students into the diversity of people, thought, experience and opportunity available at a research university like ASU. Finding a way to do that early is important for everyone, and especially for students who are the first in their families to go to college.” Anbar, director of the Center for Education Through eXploration at ASU, will lead the development of the Exploration Experiences.

Sara Brownell, a biology education researcher and associate professor with the School of Life Sciences, will be the lead for assessing the impact of the program.

“We hope to collect data to help us make evidence-based decisions about how to make our undergraduate science programs more inclusive,” Brownell said.

Each participating school will work with HHMI and the Association of American Colleges and Universities to evaluate progress and refine approaches as necessary. In addition, the grantees will learn from each other by working in clusters of four to five schools. Ultimately, HHMI hopes the schools will discover strategies for making meaningful and lasting change that can be adopted by other institutions.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU alum demonstrates value of liberal arts degree

June 20, 2018

Arizona State University alumnus Ben Ellis’ Sun Devil story starts with getting rejected from the schools he applied to in his home state.

“The year I applied to college was the year Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California and one of the things he did was defer the lower half of what would be in-state students and said ‘Sorry, we’re going to put out-of-state students in to increase tuition.’ So I didn’t get into any of the schools I applied to in California,” Ellis said. “I applied to ASU and was accepted into Barrett, The Honors College and given an academic scholarship. I came out for a campus tour and just fell in love. It was Sun Devils from there.” Alumni Ben Ellis receives an award Third place winner Ben Ellis, a 2008 communication graduate and owner of E&G Real Estate Services, receives congratulations at the Sun Devil 100 luncheon at the Carson Ballroom, Wednesday, April 25, 2018, celebrating the fastest growing alumni-owned or -led businesses. Download Full Image

Ellis graduated from Barrett, The Honors College and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in communication in 2008. He began as a theater major, but switched to communication after he was drawn to the types of classes being offered at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.

“I just found that the classes were interesting and it felt like things I already knew, but it had placed labels, definitions, strategies and ways to navigate different situations and I found that really intriguing,” he said.

While a student at ASU, Ellis entered the world of commercial real estate. In the years after graduation, he moved to residential real estate. He says his transition from commercial to residential was like “putting a Ferrari engine into a Honda.”

“I went from doing commercial real estate deals between $2 million and $20 million per transaction. And the first real estate transaction I did when I went to residential was renting a $500-a-month, 1905-constructed, three-bed, one-bath on the west side of downtown Phoenix. It really took me from what I consider to be the ivory tower of real estate to starting from the bottom: residential leasing. But I made that decision intentionally because I didn’t necessarily feel like I had earned the position to be in commercial real estate at that high level.”

Although he enjoyed the communication classes he took while in school, Ellis said he didn’t feel the value in the degree when he graduated.

“I felt there was more value in a business degree, an accounting degree … something that provided me a specific skill set. When I entered commercial real estate I had no idea how to underwrite, I had no idea how to do an Excel spreadsheet to a high level, I had no idea how to run a pro forma. I felt that if I had a business degree that would have been very helpful in business. But those are easily attainable skills that take a short period of time.”

After working a few years postgraduation, Ellis said he realized he had a leg up on the people in his industry. Later, as he worked to build E & G Real Estate Services, which won the No. 3 spot at the Sun Devil 100 awards this spring, the skills he learned at ASU showed their true benefit.

“I think what the liberal arts and communication major really helped with was a different way to think, more of a problem-solving mentality. That’s something that I think is way more valuable. Those certain skill sets of how to put a spreadsheet together are pretty easy, but to learn how to problem solve, learn how to be resourceful, learn how to communicate, learn how to read situations — I think that is much more difficult to attain. I think that’s what really helped me to navigate through starting a business and the challenges that poses.”

Ellis considers himself fortunate for the opportunities he had in real estate early on and says that’s not the typical situation.

“Your traditional real estate agent has to really fend for themselves," he said. "Sort of eat what you kill. You’re commission only, you don’t have a salary and it’s really challenging. It burns a lot of people out and if you become more commission-focused, you aren’t client focused.”

When Ellis was creating his own business model, he wanted it to put people first.  

“For us, we identified that we wanted to create more genuine relationships with clients that were around their needs in life for housing. So we developed our business model around being able to provide that type of service around those junctures in clients’ lives.”

That focus on people and relationships doesn’t stop at work. Ellis is also a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Council emerging leader where he serves as an ambassador for ASU and the college.

“I’m part of an entrepreneurs' organization here locally called EO; there’s about 170 business owners that employ about 9,000 employees in Arizona and the country. I’m able to educate my colleagues in terms of the talent of the students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and try to create a connection between the business world and the students that are thinking about going into different industries.”

Ellis advises current students of the college to take full advantage of what the college and university have to offer.

“That’s my one regret from when I was at ASU. There are so many amazing speakers and faculty with incredible minds and opportunities to collaborate with like-minded individuals. Dive into the deep end and take full advantage. The more you put into the experience, the more you’ll get out of it.”

And for alumni, Ellis advises to reconnect and get involved.

“ASU and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences are changing at such a rapid pace; stay up-to-date with what’s going on and find your niche — where you want to get involved, contribute or mentor — because the students, the experience and the opportunities are just unbelievable with what is happening with the college and university right now.”

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences