In Breakthrough, a short film series produced by Science Friday and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a dozen women in science share what they do.

Volcanologist and petrologist Kayla Iacovino collects and examines rock samples to learn how geochemical forces traced back to the belly of volcanoes lead to destructive eruptions. Biochemist Mandë Holford investigates compounds in the powerful venom of the unassuming cone snail for their potential to treat pain in human cancer. Earth systems scientist Africa Flores-Anderson uses satellite data to model environmental changes in bodies of water on which underserved communities depend.

As these scientists let viewers briefly into their worlds, Science Friday offers an Inclusive Action Tool Kit to follow the films up with actionable steps for advancing equity and inclusion in STEM. Fourth-year engineering education Ph.D. students Teirra Holloman and Jessica Deters joined the project to contribute recommendations and resources informed by research to the toolkit. 

Both see the combined films and toolkit as a jumping-off point for inclusive action in STEM. “Breakthrough is putting the really innovative work that these women are doing at the forefront and starting conversations around that,” Deters said. “And then we’re able to come in with this toolkit and be like, now here’s how we can make it possible for more women to do that work.”

The steps laid out in the first section of the toolkit, focused on creating change, are targeted at those who instruct and lead in STEM fields of higher education — faculty, administrators, and staff — while the second section is designed to be a resource for minoritized students that are navigating that system. Topics covered in the toolkit include addressing underreported identities in national datasets, equity in the application process, safe community spaces, and mentorship. 

“These are the topics that got us motivated to pursue our degrees, but also, it’s an opportunity to showcase some of that knowledge that we’ve been able to pick up along the way,” Holloman said. “And it’s a balance of: yes, here’s a place to start, but it also doesn’t stop here. This is a multifaceted, complex, systemic issue. There isn’t one mentoring program you could implement that’s going to make everything all better. There are lots of moving pieces that have to happen.”

The toolkit’s order of focusing first on providing recommendations for higher education leadership was intentional, the pair explained. While the document gives strategies to help students alleviate some of the issues they may be experiencing while pursuing their degree in a STEM field, it places the onus on those who lead and teach for the big, systemic fixes. 

“If you’re coming to this as someone with power — a faculty member, a staff member, an administrator — think about: What do you have power over?” said Deters. “What spaces do you control? And in what ways can you influence student experiences? Using the toolkit as a guide to look through, how can you use these tips to improve the experiences of your students?”

As a researcher, Deters is investigating how core beliefs and values held in engineering affected student and faculty experiences as engineering programs adapted to COVID-19 this year. Holloman is studying race-conscious student support programs in engineering and how program leaders navigate and adapt to varying external forces, like political climate and resources, within higher education environments. While these individual research efforts and other projects fill a lot of their time, Deters and Holloman were drawn to the Breakthrough toolkit for a chance to share their knowledge in a different, more tangible way.

“We’re both really motivated by the idea of improving diversity, inclusion, and equity in STEM,” said Deters. “This just seemed like a really good opportunity to communicate that work broadly. So rather than writing that conference paper or journal article, I think this style of publication is something that’s designed to be understandable for everyone, accessible to everyone.”

The two found that in working on the toolkit, they could pull from four years of daily conversations and experiences they shared with students and faculty in the Department of Engineering Education, including dialogue on inclusive action within the department itself.

“We have our own equity and inclusion committee within our department, and I’m able to be a part of that committee,” said Holloman. “I get to see how faculty actively engage in trying to make change within the department. I get this front-row seat into not only what it’s like to engage in that kind of research, but also what it’s like to put some of that in action — being able to sit back and watch, and learn, how do you have that conversation with higher-ups and admins? It’s one thing to be able to have all this knowledge, but it’s another thing to know how to actually put it into action. As a graduate student, being able to watch that happen in a space where I still feel comfortable expressing my thoughts and opinions is a really cool one.” 

The Breakthrough Inclusive Action Toolkit is intended to be a living document, with Science Friday describing the toolkit going through cycles of reiteration to fold in more research perspectives and community needs.

“That allows for it to not just be a static conversation,” Holloman said. “We can only add so much, and there are so many great people that know other things about higher education and STEM as they relate to diversity, inclusion, and equity.”

“We both knew that there were areas of equity and inclusion that we aren’t well-versed in, and some of those areas we are aware of and others we aren’t,” Deters added. “So that gave us a lot of, almost peace going through the process, of knowing: this is basically a first draft. I’m excited to go through that process and see what the feedback is, and how we can bring more communities into the conversation and put out an improved document."

The Breakthrough Inclusive Action Tool Kit is free to access, download, and share at www.breakthroughfilms.org/toolkit.