In addition to writing a weekly note to students, Dr. Vanden Bout sometimes pens messages for other outlets. Below is a piece he was invited to submit for the newsletter of GlobalMindED, which awarded him its 2019 Inclusive Leader Award. GlobalMindED is a nonprofit innovation network that closes the equity gap through education, entrepreneurship, employment and economic mobility to create a capable, diverse talent pipeline.
I don't know precisely when my perspective began to change regarding my role as an educator, but it was around the time that I began to question whether I really knew anything about my students. Like many, I naively assumed their experience was much like my own experience. They were college students. I had been a college student. They were taking a chemistry class. I had taken many chemistry classes. Sure, they were a bit different than me and I knew they all had a diversity of preparation in high school. But I didn't really dig in to know more about them.
I'd love to say my change came about when I realized my remarkable privilege as a white male with a father who was also a scientist in academics. But instead it all started with a realization that I didn't really know what my students knew about chemistry. I was teaching a large introductory lecture course to around 500 students. I had taught the class many times in the past, and as in most big courses, some students did very well, and other students did not. I assumed that was just the nature of teaching to big numbers.
That semester I was team teaching with a colleague, Dr. Cynthia LaBrake, and the two of us were revamping the course. To see if the innovations were having an impact on student learning, we gave the students a conceptual chemistry test on the first day of class and at the end of the semester. The most startling realization from the data was that a huge fraction of the class aced the test on the first day of class. I suddenly realized that the students who I thought I was really reaching with my teaching essentially already knew all the material.
More importantly, I understood that I really needed to focus on the rest of the class who were the ones that were actually learning chemistry for the first time. This didn't mean watering down the content to help them get by, but instead it meant making a concerted effort to connect and support these students as they struggled with these new concepts.
Since then I have been on a continual journey to better understand who our students are and what struggles they are facing.
For the last five years, I have served as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences, where I have the pleasure to work with a whole team of staff dedicated to improving the student experience. Together, we have put in place programs to ensure incoming students have a strong sense of community and belonging. We have worked with faculty to shift the focus of teaching from weeding out students to nurturing students. We have worked across the college to improve our curriculum and simplify our degree plans.
The results have been increased retention and graduation rates-especially for our historically underserved populations. While we have made a lot of progress, what matters to our students today is not how much better things are compared to the past but what things are like today. And so we need to continue to improve.
Moreover, we need to start to tailor our approach to ensure that we are providing opportunities for all of our students. We need to ask a whole set of new questions. What specific barriers do our first-generation students face, and what are we doing to remove them? As we promote summer experiences in research, internships, and study abroad, what are we doing to lower financial barriers for students who can afford to participate? Are the mentoring and learning support structures we have in place available at times to support students who live far from campus?
We can't answer any of these questions if we don't take the time to get to get to know our students and try to understand their perspective. And that is something I try to remind myself of every day.