Polio is a highly infectious disease. It can cause paralysis or even be deadly.
In 1979, the U.S. declared polio eliminated. Now, the poliovirus only continues to infect people in three countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
For a class assignment, molecular virology students researched these countries—finding out the vaccination programs in place, or lack there of, and finding out why the virus continues to infect children in those regions.
“There’s obviously cultural influences in these places,” said Dr. Kasey Karen, assistant professor of microbiology. “In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Taliban plays a role, but in different ways in each country.”
Other students in her class researched the successful elimination of polio from India and the anti-vaccination movement.
This cultural look at the humanities side of biology is something rarely addressed in such STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses. But a new initiative at Georgia College challenges faculty members to find ways to bring diversity into their curricula.
“The STEM fields, in many ways, consist of abstract techniques and concepts that must be taught. They’re not always connected to the social side,” said Dr. Beauty Bragg, provost fellow and professor of English. “We’ve created a faculty learning community to look at content and come up with ways to make it more diverse.”
The faculty learning community, which includes faculty from many fields across campus, meets to discuss the challenges of incorporating different perspectives into their curriculum, collects models of best practices and has heard from guest speakers on the topics. One guest, Dr. James Barta, dean of the Tift College of Education at Mercer University, presented on the role of culture in mathematical thought.
“Our goal is to empower faculty to be able to meet the characteristics of preeminence—to help our students be more globally aware by presenting more concepts of diversity and providing resources to help them develop practical skills for the workplace,” said Bragg.
Dr. Rachel Epstein teaches in a STEM field and admits bringing in diverse perspectives can be a challenge. The assistant professor of mathematics says making changes to the curriculum to include different perspectives can “allow students to challenge the current narrative” in these fields.
“It’s important for us to challenge the status quo. Changing the curriculum to include different perspectives can allow students to gain a more global understanding of the world,” said Epstein.
In her math courses, she’s looking at ways to teach more than just the concepts of trigonometry or calculus.
"My goal is to look at a particular topic that I’m teaching and try to discover the story of where and why it was developed and how it came to be part of the standard math curriculum. Much of the math we teach originates in the Middle East, China and India, but we don’t often teach the history,” said Epstein. “In addition, I want to look at the ways various cultures have approached similar mathematical problems and what lesser known mathematical ideas developed from these approaches.”
It’s these “other lessons” in STEM fields that can help humanize somewhat difficult material, also giving students a more broad-based learning opportunity— the very definition of a liberal arts education.
“A lot of my students are pre-med or are looking to go into graduate school. They can be so focused on knowing the material for an exam,” said Karen. “But as important as it is for them to know the molecular details, it’s just as important that they understand the underlying issues and ways those facts can help them help humanity."
As the 10 faculty members in the work group explore ways to incorporate more diverse thought into their courses, Bragg hopes others see the value for students and join the movement.
“I’d like to see this institutionalized through the Center for Teaching and Learning,” said Bragg. “I can imagine an advisory committee that helps organize workshops and encourages all faculty to think about ways to broaden their curriculum.”