Reflective Waves: Investigating and Identifying Inequities in STEM Courses with the Measurement Working Group

By Ashley Atkinson

Early on, SEISMIC established four Working Groups to promote collaborative work across member institutions and encourage participants to apply their expertise to topics of interest to them. In this issue of Reflective Waves, we will be highlighting the work and successes of Working Group 1: Measurement (WG1). WG1 was founded with the primary goals of establishing metrics for measuring equity and inclusion in introductory STEM courses, conducting measurements, and identifying actionable data to promote change.

Throughout the past five years, over 70 people have been involved with the Measurement Working Group. This has resulted in the publication of six papers, with four more on the way. In addition, WG1 members have given several presentations on their measurement work at a variety of events such as The Weeks of SEISMIC, our Summer Meetings, and academic conferences such as the American Educational Research Association events.

WG 1 Co-Chair Becky Matz

Co-chairs Becky Matz and Stefano Fiorini have worked hard to organize and support the group’s efforts. “I would say that WG1’s greatest success is the new relationships among staff researchers, faculty, postdocs, and students across SEISMIC’s institutions,” says Matz. “There exists now a bigger and stronger network of folks who can do cross-institutional quantitative work with student records data, and I think each of us in that network has a good sense of the motivations, capabilities, and strengths of the others.” Both co-chairs attribute much of WG1’s success to the involvement of key members and are proud of how WG1 as a whole has contributed to the SEISMIC community. Moreover, Matz and Fiorini are confident WG1 has made important progress toward addressing inequities and structural issues that exist on SEISMIC campuses through the variety of studies conducted.

In 2021, WG1 developed a Fellowship program that allowed graduate students to participate in SEISMIC research during the summer, providing them with funding to support their work. Outside of supporting the Collaboration’s goals of improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM courses, the Fellowship program gave WG1 the opportunity to build and expand the pool of future academics with an understanding of the issues that were at play. “That was extremely exciting because we could bring in students and give them an experience that contributed to their career prospects,” Fiorini recalls.

WG 1 Co-Chair Stefano Fiorini

Working Group 1 has nurtured multiple projects to work towards its mission of identifying and evaluating measurements of inequities in STEM courses. One of the working group’s efforts explores the effects of student demographics in introductory STEM courses. By conducting parallel data analyses across the SEISMIC institutions, participants worked to characterize how the complex identities of students interact with STEM learning environments. The group formalized the Systemic Advantage Index, a scale that indicates the advantages that characterize students within institutions according to race, gender, socioeconomic status, and first-generation status. Using this, Sarah Castle and other members of WG1 explored multi-institutional practices for mapping systemic advantages within STEM courses (Castle et al., 2021). Another paper concerning the impact of systemic advantage on student outcomes is currently in review, and will hopefully be published soon. 

Another WG1 project focused on the impact that Advanced Placement (AP) course credit has on student success in introductory science courses. Christian Fischer and other members of WG1 identified that institutional and departmental policies concerning AP credit varied widely. Additionally, the group found that there was variety in the way students approached using AP credit to skip courses (Fischer et al., 2023).

Working Group 1’s progress was not without challenges, however. Often, the data they were primarily working with was institutional data, meaning information about the courses and their students was collected by the universities themselves. This frequently left many unknown elements when looking at data, such as specific student identities and other unique student experiences, leading WG1 members to wonder, “How can we describe inequities in an effective, meaningful, and actionable way?” 

To address this in part, WG1 consulted with members of Working Group 4: Constructs (WG4), who were familiar with applying new frameworks and perspectives to STEM education research. “They provided us with food for thought [and] and ways of moving this work forward while accounting for the limitations of our data,” Fiorini explains. WG4 assisted WG1 with integrating critical approaches into quantitative STEM equity working, investigating systemic inequities present in higher education and their historical roots. Pearson et al. (2022) is a great example of the two working groups collaborating to inform future analyses concerning systemic inequity in STEM fields.

Matz and Fiorini are hopeful that WG1 will continue to develop the knowledge and skills needed to work towards changing inequitable practices and adverse structural elements, even after the end of SEISMIC 1.0. The two also have future topics they’d like for the group to explore, including analyzing data generated from learning management systems and using WG1’s strong relationships to do research that impacts an even broader audience of researchers, administrators, and faculty.

Because of the efforts of dedicated co-chairs and motivated members, Working Group 1 has advanced the understanding of equity issues in STEM introductory courses, identifying and developing metrics alongside analyzing available data. They are continuing to apply pressure to the higher education system, pursuing new projects and sharing what they’ve learned. The fire they’ve lit under all of us involved in higher education will continue to burn, even beyond the conclusion of SEISMIC.


Ashley Atkinson

Ashley Atkinson is a Program Assistant for SEISMIC Central, ensuring that SEISMIC initiatives have the help they need to run smoothly. Her primary responsibilities include maintaining the SEISMIC website, managing the Newsletter, and supporting projects. As an alum from Michigan State University, Ashley is passionate about equity and inclusion in STEM alongside science communication. She is currently pursuing an MA in Science Writing and Johns Hopkins University.