Inaugural grants for exciting equity initiatives

02 June 2017

The Science Equity Fund awarded grants to six projects.

This month, the faculty awarded the first six grants to fund new equity initiatives.

Established in April by the Faculty of Science Equity Committee (FoSEC), the Equity Initiative Fund aims to support staff and students to achieve the faculty’s vision and strategic goals for equity in Science.

The faculty hopes that the funding will facilitate the development of a number of small, new or expanding initiatives that target equity groups in one particular area, or throughout the faculty.

Professor Virginia Braun, Associate Dean for Equity, says, “We have responsibility to – and for – many different equity groups among staff and students related to learning and working in the faculty.

“We’re aiming to create improvements in the experiences and outcomes among Māori and equity groups.”

The FoSEC has awarded grants to six diverse projects this year, with some localised in departments and others taking a faculty-wide approach. Perhaps unsurprisingly, several of the inaugural projects are focused on data gathering and analysis, which will allow the faculty to build on these activities in the future.

Dr Andrew Luxton-Reilly's project will explore the gender gap in computer science.

One such project is Dr Andrew Luxton-Reilly’s. Andrew is a senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, and his initiative has zoomed in on the male dominated nature of the field.

“Computer science has relatively low participation for women. The causes of the gender gap are complex, but we know they’re linked with perceptions of the discipline and the culture within academic departments.”

Andrew plans to use questionnaires to collect staff and student perceptions of culture and gender equity within his department.

“Having baseline data will allow us to measure the success of future interventions, and it may also reveal areas of concern that have previously remained unnoticed,” explains Andrew.

Department of Mathematics’ Associate Professor Claire Postlethwaite has taken a slightly different approach to addressing the gender gap in the sciences.

Along with undergraduate students Alysha Johnson, Lucy Ingram, Yustyna Knish and Isable Holm, Claire has been awarded funding for the Undergraduate Women in Science Network (UWISN), a community that helps to address the isolation felt by many undergraduate women students.

With their grant from the Equity Initiative Fund, Claire and the UWISN aim to improve the educational experience and retention rates of women students in the mathematical and physical sciences.

“We plan to run a series of ‘An interview with…’ events, and to provide practical support for the transition to postgraduate study and then on to STEM careers. Our long-term aim is to increase the participation of women in STEM disciplines,” says Claire.

The Undergraduate Women in Science Network is a community for women students in the mathematical and physical sciences.

In March this year, the Department of Physics was recognised for its strong commitment to promoting gender equity and diversity when it received the Pleiades Bronze Award.

The department plans to build on this prestigious award by running a ‘climate survey’ every two years to monitor and identify attitudes, perceptions and issues within the department.

“We ran the first survey in 2015 and produced a report on the findings, which was the basis for a number of recommended changes in the department,” explains Dr Dion O’Neale, who, along with Dr Fred Vanholsbeeck and Dr JJ Eldridge, is part of the Physics Equity Working Group that conducted the survey.

“We’ll use our grant to pay for a research assistant to administer the 2017 survey and to carry out the initial analysis of the results.”

While the project focuses on women in Physics, Dion hopes the outcomes will also benefit other under-represented – or yet-to-be-represented – groups. “We want to make the department a more supportive environment, and acknowledge the barrier faced by individuals from different backgrounds or with different life circumstances,” he says.

There are particular educational challenges faced by people who are from refugee backgrounds in New Zealand. Senior lecturer Dr Francis Collins and professional teaching fellow Dr Kate Lewis Kenedi from the School of Environment will use their equity funding to fill in a gap in our knowledge about students of refugee backgrounds.

Dr Francis Collins and Dr Kate Lewis Kenedi will use their grant to learn more about students of refugee backgrounds.

“While the University recognised students of refugee backgrounds as an equity group in 2015, we still need to learn more about the number of these students, what they study, what they aspire to, and how the University can support them to achieve their goals,” explains Francis.

“We’re going to do a small series of interviews and focus groups with current students in the faculty, as well as potential students in secondary schools, to identify what kinds of support can be developed to enhance their experience at University.”

It’s clear the awardees are thinking about how their initiatives can have a positive impact before students even arrive at University.

Like Francis and Kate, faculty kaiārahi Michael Steedman and Dr Sina Greenwood, senior lecturer and coordinator of the Tuākana Mathematics programme, are planning to use their funding to gain a better understanding of the impact of the secondary school environment on students’ academic choices and success.

“We want to better understand the academic landscape of the secondary schools that typically provide the Faculty of Science with multiple applications each year,” explains Michael. “The information we gather will be used to inform subsequent initiatives to improve student preparation for success in Mathematics.”

Associate Dean for Equity Professor Virginia Braun says the fund aims to "encourage localised, bottom-up thinking and practice around equity".

Michael is enthusiastic about the significance of the Equity Initiative Fund within the Faculty of Science.

“It allows us to look beyond the limits of the University environment, at other factors that influence the success of our students.

Francis agrees, “In offering this fund the faculty is taking a leadership role in learning more about its students and working towards an inclusive educational environment where everyone can succeed.”

As exciting as it is to receive one of the first grants, the recipients are already looking ahead.

Andrew says that “the fund is an opportunity to lay the groundwork for further initiatives in the future”, Claire hopes that the fund continues beyond 2017.

Dion sums it up well.

“The fund is hugely important because it demonstrates that the Faculty of Science supports equity activities and is willing to resource them.”

“It can take quite a bit of time and effort to carry out initiatives like this, so it’s great to know that the faculty values and supports this work.”

“With the fund we’re aiming to foster innovative thinking, support the investment that many staff have in building better equity outcomes and experiences, and encourage localised, bottom-up thinking and practice around equity,” explains Professor Braun.

“Judging from the variety of initiatives funded this year, I think we’re well on the way to achieving these aims.”