More than 150 university faculty and staff came together June 5-6 at Virginia Tech for the 2019 Summer Institute: Professional Development for Undergraduate Education.

The annual institute, now in its fourth year, is a two-day professional development event for faculty, advisors, and other administrators working with Virginia Tech’s First-Year Experience courses (FYE), Pathways to General Education, or the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Grant.

Hosted by Virginia Tech and Radford University, and sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Inclusive Excellence Program, this year’s program centered around the theme of “inclusive excellence” and focused on ways to implement inclusive strategies both in and out of the classroom. For the event, Virginia Tech also partnered with several other universities involved with the HHMI grant: Radford University, Towson University, and Trinity Washington University.

The institute featured targeted workshops and individualized discussions for Pathways, FYE, and HHMI, as well as a poster session and resource fair. The event also facilitated an open dialogue about inclusive pedagogy within a variety of group sessions designed for all attendees, such as  “Universal Design for Learning: Developing a ‘Plus One’ Mentality,” “Inclusive Teaching: The Impact of Microaggressions & Implicit Bias in the Classroom,” “Teaching & Supporting Anxious and Stressed Students,” and “In the Weeds Look at Teaching a Course on Diversity and Inclusion … Inclusively!”

One presentation that explored inclusion from a unique angle was “Motivation as a Tool for Inclusion,” the session led by Makeda Richardson, program officer in the Undergraduate and Graduate Programs Group for HHMI. Richardson encouraged attendees to evaluate the role that motivation plays in improving educational productivity.

Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke introduced a highlight of the first day of the event: David Asai’s keynote address, titled “Race Matters.” Currently senior director for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Asai tied together history, personal stories, STEM, higher education, and systemic inequities for a captivated audience.

In a post-event survey, one faculty member noted, “This year's theme was timely and needed. Especially during the keynote presentations, you could feel a sense of uneasiness in the audience, which is good. We need to feel uneasy! We need to use our discomfort to grow around these issues. Last year's institute was good, but this year was next-level.”

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David Asai gives his keynote during the first day at the Summer Institute

The institute’s second day keynote was given by Shelli Fowler, associate dean for the University College at Virginia Commonwealth University. In “Redesigning Our Pedagogical Praxis for Inclusive Excellence in STEM-H” Fowler drove home the importance of pursuing inclusive excellence in education and provided an extensive list of resources and texts for further exploration.

To bring the event to a close, Yolanda Avent, senior director of Cultural and Community Centers at Virginia Tech, had participants consider how to engage students in difficult classroom conversations in “Inclusive Teaching: Engaging and Integrating the Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom.”

For many institute participants, the chance to reconnect with old colleagues, form relationships with new ones, and learn what others are doing in the classroom is an essential part of the experience. One participant cited the opportunity to “engage in big picture challenges, like addressing implicit bias or supporting students in transition” as one of the most helpful parts of the institute.

Another noted that they came to the conference not knowing what to expect, but ultimately left having learned valuable skills that they could use in their own work. “I almost didn't come because my first impression was it focused on STEM and I do not work with STEM at all. However, having heard other colleagues who attended the institute in previous years talk about the sessions, I decided to come anyway. I learned a lot from it and found a lot of information that I could apply to my work in my college.”

As this year’s attendees left with new tools for creating an inclusive environment, a faculty member noted the importance of also sharing that new knowledge within their disciplines. “This institute is a great place to spread the good word and have colleagues carry that information back to their home departments.”

Written by Rachel Kinzer Corell

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An attendee at the 2019 Summer Institute talks to representatives from University Libraries during the Resource Fair.