Every Learner Everywhere

Beyond Inclusion: How This Biology Professor Motivates Students Through Civic Engagement

Like many college faculty, Dr. Bryan Dewsbury, the first featured speaker in Every Learner Everywhere’s Strategies for Success Through Equitable Teaching and Learning webinar series, discovered his commitment to teaching late in his preparation for it.

“I avoided teaching initially,” says Dewsbury, Associate Professor of Biology, Associate Director of STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University. “In science grad school, you are advised to spend your time in your research lab collecting data. When I had to teach, it was a ‘road to Damascus’ moment. I learned education wasn’t just about talking about what’s in the textbook and doing lab experiments. It’s about personal transformation.”

In particular, Dewsbury began to see teaching the sciences as grounded in building civic engagement, which he defines as “self-interrogation, learning what it means to live with others; to be kind, to vote, to make informed decisions, to be part of a society that is trying to thrive. Once I internalized that that is what we really are supposed to be doing, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Dewsbury started to treat teaching and learning as its own scholarly field, drawing on support from his institution’s center for teaching excellence to inform his work as a teaching assistant. Now as faculty, Dewsbury runs a lab with his graduate students that incorporates the study of education practice.

“Our core philosophy is that there is a difference between readiness and potential,” he says. “We assume potential. Everybody can do biology. Our job is to figure out your level of readiness so we can get you to a place where you see how your potential can unfold. My job is not really to teach you biology. My job is to take you from a place where you might have some questions about your potential to where you see it as clear as day.”

That perspective informs Dewsbury’s presentation Beyond Inclusion: Teaching for Civic Engagement and Participation (January 27, 2023, 10 a.m. Mountain Time). The talk will explore ways college faculty can connect classroom practice with the values, behaviors, and mindsets needed for a socially just society.

Dewsbury will make the case for an explicit pedagogy, with examples from his introductory STEM courses, demonstrating how these practices prepare students for social participation. He will outline foundational principles — that relationships must precede pedagogy, for example — along with specific practices he uses, such as reflective essays, alternative assessments, and ongoing feedback for continuous improvement.

Beyond buzzwords

Dewsbury says the presentation is titled “Beyond Inclusion” to emphasize how the term can be deployed in ways without any impact.

“Inclusion should be an assumed part of a course or campus that is always thinking about ways we contribute to society to make it a brighter and a happier place,” he says.

“Part of that contribution is how we practice democratic engagement. What does it mean to have a voice in a society? How do you bridge differences religiously, politically, socially? In the talk, I will get into how, even in teaching a science like biology, you can practice some of those formative skills.”

Dewsbury says inclusion is often treated as a box checked for grant applications, but “including is a verb. If there are a lot of differences, what are the things we need to be doing to make sure that no matter what differences people bring with them, they feel part of this community with equal levels of strength?”

He characterizes his approach to inclusion as “relentless welcoming,” a phrase coined by Peter Felton and Leo Lambert in Relationship-Rich Education.

Cover less, learn more

A profile of Dewsbury on the Florida International University website recounts his experience dramatically reducing DFW rates in gateway science courses at a previous institution. He engaged students on their own ground, tapping into aspirations and the problems they faced.

An essential step is getting one-on-one time with struggling students and listening to them.

“Nine times out of 10, you realize when they’re struggling is usually because of something non-cognitive,” he says. “You find out they’re working night shifts at a bar four days a week and hoping to get a couple hours of study in on the weekend. Then the conversation becomes not ‘Why don’t you try hard enough?’ but ‘How do we organize your life so that you can be your best self?’”

One approach to course design Dewsbury takes that might surprise some is significantly cutting the amount of science content he covers so he can prioritize communication and working in cohesive groups.

“Once we get confidence built and people started having some self-belief, that drove the reduction [in the DFW rates],” he says. “But the statistic I am more proud of is the fact that those students went on to do better than students from the other sections who had all that content coverage.”

In other words, less content doesn’t mean the course is easier. “It’s actually a very hard class,” Dewsbury says. “They do a ton of work. We have to shift what we consider teaching. It’s not ‘I need to cover X chapters by December 15.’ It’s ‘I need to teach you to be an internally motivated learner so when you leave, you want to go and find those extra books. You want to find out more. You want to join our lab.”

Beautifully complex systems

Dewsbury says rethinking inclusion in the classroom also needs to be extended to the institutional level. It can’t stop at workshops, new endowed positions, or new institutes and centers.

“Those are all good steps toward something bigger,” he says. “But I would like us to envision the process of educating students as the core mission of institutions of higher education, regardless of whether you consider yourself a research institution or a teaching-focused institution. In a perfect world, I would love to see a center for teaching and learning with the same kind of investment as an office of sponsored research.”

Many of the investments needed for equitable teaching and learning are too piecemeal, he believes, where substantial and sustained efforts are required.

“You can talk about inclusive teaching as a value,” Dewsbury explains, “but if there’s a $35,000 salary difference between your teaching faculty and research faculty, are those really your values? Is inclusive teaching being reflected in how they’re hired or how they’re evaluated for tenure? To have everybody feel included means putting some of your issues of power on display and having them interrogated, and that is a lot of times is a step people are unwilling to take.”

As a result, institutional change doesn’t happen overnight. “Higher education is a beautifully complex system, so any kind of transformation needs to match that complexity,” Dewsbury says. “Transformation needs more than just sitting and listening to me. I hope to crack a door to show what inclusion could look like and leave them inspired enough that they want to embark on their own journeys, wherever they may be.”

Register for Beyond Inclusion: Teaching for Civic Engagement and Participation