The Seeds of SEISMIC

By Nita Tarchinski and Tim McKay


The SEISMIC project emerged from a series of conversations between March and June of 2018 between Tim and Elizabeth Boylan, who was then the Sloan Foundation’s Director of Programs on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEM Higher Education. The original focus is right there in the acronym: the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in SteM Introductory Courses project. The best short summary is probably provided by the original proposal’s cover sheet. The initial SEISMIC grant was awarded by the Sloan Foundation Board in November 2018.

When Nita started working as Project Manager at the end of 2018, the project really got off the ground. The first task was to recruit a set of partner institutions. To do this, we both spent the period from January to May 2019 visiting eight of our nine partner institutions, with our ninth visit in the fall. During these visits, we met with local leaders, ran SEISMIC workshops, and explored what everyone we talked to was most excited about doing within the SEISMIC community. This was one of the most fun and stimulating things we’ve ever done – an exciting sign for us that the SEISMIC idea was a good one.

At our first Summer Meeting, held in June 2019 in Ann Arbor, we gathered a handful of representatives from each institution, and launched a series of three working groups focused on Measurements of Equity and Inclusion, Classroom Experimentation, and Institutional Change. Meanwhile, the wider SEISMIC community began engaging with the collaboration through public presentations, book groups, campus events, and more. Among other things, these discussions led to the launch of a fourth ‘Constructs’ Working Group in February 2020.

Then in March, the COVID-19 pandemic began, unsettling and rearranging all of our plans. Remarkably, the shift to remote everything, with its ability to easily connect people on different campuses, led to a major expansion of interest in SEISMIC. After the murder of George Floyd, members of the Constructs Working Group helped our community come together to speak out and increase our commitment to action. Together, we released a “SEISMIC Statement on White Supremacist Violence and Anti-Blackness in the United States”, committing ourselves to antiracist action in policy, representation, research, and teaching and mentorship.

Since that launch, the SEISMIC community and its interests have grown in ways both anticipated and unexpected. Lately we’ve had a lot of discussions about what we hope to do together and how to do it best. As a contribution to these conversations, we thought it might be useful to remind everyone of where we started and recall the project’s original mission and goals. The two of us returned to the original SEISMIC proposal to remind ourselves of these “seeds of SEISMIC”, and wrote this blog post to convey what we found back to our members.

5 Key Points

To share the details, we’re posting the whole original proposal. To prevent you from needing to read it all, we’re providing pointers to places where you can find descriptions of some key elements. There are five main issues we thought it would be useful to address:

  1. The SEISMIC Mission
  2. Our Commitments to our Funder
  3. The Intent behind SEISMIC
  4. The Influence of Current Events
  5. The Role of the SEISMIC Task Force

We explain our vision for the next two years of the collaboration and hope that SEISMIC members continue to find intersections with their own goals and interests.

1. The SEISMIC Mission

From the beginning, SEISMIC’s main focus has been on transforming introductory STEM courses (Cover Sheet – Project Goal p. 1; Proposal p. 31). To accomplish this goal, we sought to establish a new standard for excellence for these introductory STEM courses that centered equity and inclusion (Proposal pp. 4, 19-20). We recognized that independent reform efforts were taking place on campuses across the country. SEISMIC was created to take advantage of these parallel efforts, drawing together a close, multifaceted collaboration of about 100 faculty, students, and staff in the STEM reform communities from a set of large research universities. Our ten SEISMIC institutions, each led by a local principal investigator, joined the collaboration because of this shared focus on introductory courses.

From the start, SEISMIC was envisioned as an open collaboration, inviting participation from everyone working on our member campuses. We aim to provide spaces within which individuals interested in equity and inclusion in STEM education can accomplish their own goals – doing things together that they find difficult to do alone. This has worked well, and in addition to our original goal of introductory course reform, we now have teams working on definitions of equity and inclusion, methods for encouraging and enabling reform, advancing critical approaches to our research methodologies, and more. This has been thrilling to see, and while the SEISMIC project retains a focus on introductory course reform, it is clear that the impact of the SEISMIC community will be much broader.

2. Our Commitments To Our Funder

When the grant was first awarded by the Sloan Foundation, we worked with Dr. Boylan to establish a few key metrics for success. You can read those here. In the proposal, we committed to conducting parallel analyses of institutional data across our SEISMIC institutions. We also agreed to conduct coordinated classroom interventions in STEM courses across the collaboration. Other commitments included building a community of people dedicated to equity and inclusion in STEM, seeking and obtaining additional funding to support our interventions and community, and setting a new standard for metrics of equity and inclusion as well as for research and development for STEM reform (Cover Sheet – Expected Products p. 1; Cover Sheet – Expected Outcomes p. 1; Proposal p. 14). More specifically, we planned to build tools to help researchers explore the individual student experience without relying on “simple characterizations of identity” (Proposal p. 52). In addition, we pledged to investigate new forms of student data, such as student performance and behavior in learning management systems, classroom observations, and student survey data (Proposal pp. 52-53).

While we have, as a community, expanded our activities well beyond these goals, these commitments remain essential for the central SEISMIC project. Much work remains to be done on them during the remaining years of the grant.

3. The Intent Behind SEISMIC

A key design goal of SEISMIC is to help participants interested in equity and inclusion do things together that they could never do alone. In many cases, this is work they’re already trying to do, often work that is central to their jobs and career ambitions. The advantage of joining the collaboration is having access to a community of people interested in related work and who might be interested to collaborate on specific projects. Thus, individuals will be able to do more in SEISMIC and have a broader impact than they might have had working alone (Proposal pp. 12-13). Additionally, SEISMIC Central provides organizational support to assist collaborative projects that align with the goals of SEISMIC. Creating this community and providing this organizational support is what we hoped to do and what we committed to the Sloan Foundation (Cover Sheet – Objectives p. 1; Proposal p. 18). We have been quite successful in these efforts, building a community of more than 600 individuals who connect with the collaboration through research projects, collaboration events, our monthly newsletters, and community activities such as our summer book groups.

In many ways, SEISMIC shares similarities with professional societies or conference communities. We are a group of people interested in similar topics who come together to talk about their work, form collaborations, and learn from each other. One benefit, for example, is that being part of SEISMIC can be seen as an advantage to funding agencies looking to support research projects with broader impacts (Proposal pp. 15-16). Several SEISMIC members have had success with their grant proposals after including details on the SEISMIC infrastructure.

4. The Influence of Current Events

It comes as no surprise that global events over the last two years have had an impact on SEISMIC. When SEISMIC began in 2019, we had a clear focus on transforming introductory STEM courses. When COVID-19 shut down our universities in March 2020, our introductory courses did transform: they shifted online, making instructors rethink many of their longstanding teaching practices. Inequities always present in the classroom began to be acknowledged in the new learning environment.  COVID-19 also highlighted many longstanding racial disparities.

After the murder of George Floyd, long-standing demands for racial justice reached a new peak. Conversations previously about DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) began to be about justice and antiracism. There were new calls for proposals related to racial equity. Academic movements on Twitter like #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia, and #Strike4BlackLives gained visibility.

Understandably, the focus of many SEISMIC members and higher education in general shifted. Members of the SEISMIC collaboration wrote a public statement on white supremacy and antiracism that was quickly endorsed by the project and organized a GoFundMe for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. We also coordinated book groups on antiracism and related topics and organized affinity groups for our BIPOC members, graduate students, and LGBTQIA members. We collaborated with the Accelerating Systemic Change Network (ASCN) to host events on structural equity and our organizations’ roles in promoting justice.

Many of these activities were possible because of the community we built around SEISMIC and the flexibility of our collaboration to adapt to the community’s goals. While we encourage our community members to follow their calls for disrupting institutional structures and taking bigger steps for racial equity in higher education, and will continue to provide organizational support for these efforts to the extent we are able, our commitment to SEISMIC’s first goal of transforming introductory STEM courses remains at the heart of what we do. This is one sphere of influence our collaboration has that can contribute to racial equity and institutional change.

5. The Role of the SEISMIC Task Force

In parallel with the global challenges of the last two years, SEISMIC has also been undergoing internal challenges related to the inclusivity of our collaboration. Members, particularly women of color and junior scholars, have been harmed in SEISMIC spaces. In light of this information and subsequent discussions, SEISMIC leadership established a Task Force to examine current collaboration structures and recommend new or revised structures to make our collaboration more equitable and inclusive. More information on the Task Force and the conversations leading up to its establishment are here. The SEISMIC Task Force will support our community as we continue to work towards our collective goals.

Call to Action

As we start our third academic year together, we are looking for SEISMIC members eager to join us as we refocus on the original goal for SEISMIC: to make measurements of equity in introductory STEM courses. This goal is what initially brought our institutions together, and we believe many in our community are ready to return to it in earnest. Looking to the next two years of SEISMIC (the time we have left before our current funding runs out), we hope to share models for using data to probe equity and inspire transformation in introductory STEM courses. We aim to share code to run these analyses on institutional data sets and to share the results of analyses run on our institutions. If you are interested in joining these efforts, please let us know here.

At the same time, we recognize that our community has grown beyond the initial participants interested in our original SEISMIC goal. Our equity measures are in many ways the “pilot project” of SEISMIC, not our only project. Our SEISMIC Task Force will help to strengthen our community over the next few months and open the door to additional projects of interest to our members. We are thrilled there are new directions for this community. Knowing the strong ties between us makes us hopeful for how the SEISMIC community can be sustained even if funding runs out. Whether you joined SEISMIC when we began in 2019 or more recently, there is space for you and your ideas in this collaboration. We hope to see you at our next event!




Nita Tarchinski

Nita Tarchinski is the Project Manager for the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses (SEISMIC) Collaboration, coordinating multi-institutional and multidisciplinary research and teaching projects focused on making introductory STEM courses more equitable and inclusive.




Tim McKay, Ph.D.

Timothy A. McKay is the Director of the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses (SEISMIC) Collaboration. He is also the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan. He is a data scientist, currently using data to understand and improve teaching and learning.