Virginia Tech is beginning its second year of a $1 million grant project from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Inclusive Excellence Program to build inclusive educational practices in the sciences.

The goal of the HHMI program is to promote institutional change that supports the engagement and success of all students, especially those populations that have been historically underrepresented and underserved in the science disciplines.

The HHMI grant is administered by the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost through the Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs and the Office for Inclusion and Diversity.

The project began last year with welcoming a cohort of three Inclusive Excellence Program departments – Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science, and Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Faculty from all three departments formed a learning community where they studied how to make their teaching practices more inclusive for students from diverse backgrounds, including transfer, low income, first-generation, and underrepresented students.

During the summer, participating departments proposed “experiments” that they would launch this year using a portion of the grant funding. The Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation has initiated the Fish and Wildlife Community Mentoring Program, in which both faculty and peer mentors will support transfer and first-generation college students. They are also convening a panel of students from these student populations at the national meeting of the Wildlife Society that will focus on what students wished faculty knew about them.

“As a first-generation college graduate and a member of the Jicarilla Apache tribe, I understand the difficulties many students face when coming to a large university,” said Mike Bowers, assistant professor of neuroscience and project co-investigator.

In response to this challenge, the School of Neuroscience is expanding a seminar course to address issues of well-being and career options for their students. They have also established a mentoring program that pairs students who are underrepresented and underserved in the sciences with faculty members from those same identities, and they are engaging their faculty in pedagogical training.

The Department of Human, Nutrition, Food, and Exercise has partnered with the Department of Agricultural Education and Community Leadership to offer faculty training in inclusive pedagogy for the entire College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They are also revising their orientation courses to introduce undergraduate research and experiential learning opportunities with the goal of boosting participation in these experiences, especially among their transfer students.

Longer term, the department is exploring a “second chance” program to support the success of students who have faced difficult life circumstances, such as addiction. “I anticipate, with a lot of hope, that the changes we will put into play will increase student success and faculty inclusivity,” said Deborah Good, associate professor and co-investigator.

As the program enters its second year, three additional departments have joined the Inclusive Excellence program. Faculty from the Department of Chemistry in the College of Science, the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine have committed to the faculty learning community and will begin implementing their own experiments next year to promote access and inclusion for students in their programs.

Virginia Tech and Radford University were the only Virginia institutions last year to receive one of the 24 grants from HHMI. This year, three additional state universities – James Madison University, Norfolk State University, and Virginia Commonwealth University – received grants in the second round of awards.

“We have benefited tremendously from our interactions with our colleagues at Radford,” said Joel Keebler, program coordinator for Virginia Tech’s HHMI grant. “Our network of collaboration and support spans the New River Valley. Imagine what we can accomplish in the future with five Virginia state institutions working together for the success of our students.”