Reflective Waves: Integrating Equity-Minded Frameworks with the Constructs Working Group

By Ashley Atkinson

Edited by Nita Tarchinski

The Constructs Working Group (also known as WG4) was created in 2020, around a year after the first three working groups. Members of SEISMIC realized that much of their work, while concerned with DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), was lacking critical frameworks. A construct is the abstract idea, underlying theme, or subject that one wishes to measure. Constructs, such as equity, inclusion, race, gender, and student participation, need to be defined to be measured effectively. How we define these constructs impacts how we use them in policy, practice, and research. They also anchor us in our principles and determine our goals. To better understand how differing definitions and uses of constructs impact DEI in introductory STEM courses, as well as integrate critical frameworks and histories into STEM education research, Sara Brownell (Arizona State University), W. Carson Byrd (University of Michigan), Susan Cheng (University of Michigan), J.W. Hammond (University of Michigan), and Nita Tarchinski (University of Michigan), formed the fourth working group.

One of WG4’s first acts was developing the SEISMIC Statement on Antiracism, outlining how SEISMIC will continue to promote antiracism in policy, representation, research, and teaching and mentorship. Additionally, members focused on exploring understandings of constructs such as “diversity”, “equity”, and “inclusion” in STEM education. The project “Content Analysis of Constructs in STEM Education Literature” systematically surveyed existing scholarship on DEI constructs in STEM education work, documenting the ways these terms are characterized. Participants were also able to publish an article on why “JEDI” is a problematic term to use when promoting equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice.

Recently, I had the chance to talk with the current co-chairs of WG4: Nikeetha Farfan D’Souza, Associate Director of Bias Response and Student Support at Indiana University Bloomington, and Natasha Turman, Director for the Women in Science and Engineering Residence Program at the University of Michigan. D’Souza and Turman, both already involved in WG4 projects of their own, were perfect working group co-chair candidates. Turman is both a leadership educator and a critical scholar whose work involves regularly exploring the constructs that SEISMIC was interested in incorporating. D’Souza has experience exploring critical frameworks in the context of science education. “The previous leadership said they were stepping down and asked if we would be interested in leading and then also having the opportunity to showcase our skills… And hopefully use that to inform the direction of the group,” D’Souza explained. Together, in 2022, Turman and D’Souza became co-chairs of WG4.

WG 4 Co-Chair Natasha Turman

WG 4 Co-Chair Nikeetha Farfan D’Souza

D’Souza began her involvement with WG4 by forming the Mapping Institutional Frameworks project, designed to develop an inventory that identifies and catalogs the different resources, programs, projects, and offices related to increasing DEI at SEISMIC institutions. D’Souza says she began mapping resources to accomplish two objectives: “One is just seeing what’s out there when we talk about DEI and what supports students in introductory STEM courses, but the other was to try new, different methods.” Mapping resources is one of many visual research methods, a term which encompasses approaches that make use of non-verbal modes of representation. This work led to the SEISMIC Open-Access Research (SOAR) Project, where D’Souza and I have been working to develop short primers to explain theories and frameworks often used in social sciences to STEM educators and researchers. A large component of bringing social science mindsets to STEM work is introducing them to practitioners and explaining why they’re needed. “I’m hoping to get smaller resources out for faculty and researchers around thinking critically and culturally, and orienting them to then start using the theories that [Turman]’s group is using.”

Turman is a lead for the Framework Analysis project that aims to compare the ways that constructs related to diversity, equity, and inclusion are defined and used in and across disciplines outside of STEM education. “The primary focus was to think about how we can compare principles in non-STEM disciplines like gender studies, disability studies, and Critical Race Theory that could be useful and applicable within STEM contexts,” Turman says. The goal was to create tangible resources or tools, such as literature highlights and presentations that explain non-STEM frameworks, for instructors and researchers within the STEM world. This work directly inspired the SOAR Project, which aims to put much of this content into primer form. Beyond developing resources, this project also had a reading group that read through Braiding Sweetgrass.

While the two co-chairs worked to move their own projects along, their jobs as co-chairs were far from easy. D’Souza and Turman both noticed less engagement and interest from members as time went on, especially as the end of SEISMIC 1.0 grew closer. “The whole culture and dynamic just shifted,” Turman says. “We don’t know what else to do to make people stay engaged.”

“By 2022, even [our] reading group was super small,” D’Souza adds. With the post-pandemic era bringing anti-DEI efforts, it’s possible that motivations and capacity to participate have changed. “I wonder if people’s time to give to equity work was reduced,” D’Souza says. At the same time, with some of the original WG4 projects wrapping up, momentum had slowed down. Participants had less time to give. “It was just hard to get going,” D’Souza recalls.

Turman and D’Souza also felt they were lacking guidance at times: “I think we were left to our own devices from a SEISMIC perspective… There was not a person or persons for us to talk to as co-chairs to say, ‘Hey, we’re navigating challenges, what are your recommendations?’” Turman says. “Who do we have to go to to find support?”

“There’s a lot of emphasis in SEISMIC on publications, but the background administration and support seems to be missing. And that was, I think, where we struggled,” D’Souza says. “If you have co-chairs and we have these responsibilities, then what is the responsibility of members to engage back and what is the responsibility for leadership to support the co-chairs?”

“Despite the challenges in SEISMIC, I have found a place to do my work,” D’Souza says. Throughout her time in WG4, no matter how challenging things have been, people are always open to new ideas. The SEISMIC Open-Access Resources project is experimental, but having the resources to experiment in this way has been encouraging to D’Souza. “SEISMIC lets me experiment in the true way. You try it and you fail and you try it again and you fail… and maybe on the 10th time you get something going.” In addition, D’Souza has been working with students in non-traditional spaces and creating better research experiments for them. When I was completing my undergraduate degree, I was one of the first students D’Souza mentored, and together we explored how to map institutional resources. More recently, D’Souza has been a mentor in both the 2022 and 2023 cohorts of SEISMIC Scholars.

As we work toward designing a future iteration of SEISMIC, many of these challenges can be addressed by having structured roles with position descriptions as well as commitment forms to guide volunteers. “Making sure that communication is clearly articulated and delineated so people know what they’re actually participating in and what they’re working towards, I think, is really going to be important for the future,” Turman says.

D’Souza and Turman also advocate for prioritizing support for participants’ professional development and well-being. Another recommendation they have for a future version of SEISMIC is to have more check-ins for co-chairs, ensuring they have the resources they need to work toward project goals.

With the voluntary nature of SEISMIC, it can be difficult to assign responsibilities and ensure commitment. Additionally, we want to make sure that members can participate in work that is meaningful for their own professional development goals, and are able to engage in the way they want to. Oftentimes, this manifests in a focus on publications. However, we can still work toward designing a future iteration of SEISMIC that provides more support for all of its members’ interests and is more cognizant of the well-being of its participants.

One of WG4’s publications highlighted how SEISMIC, by undergoing infrastructural revision, was able to (re)shape which people they include, whose voices they elevate, and what data they collect and use. Building equity and inclusion into multi-institutional collaborations is an ongoing, collaborative process. As we encounter challenges, we can evaluate the structures they arise from and revise them. Going forward, we will use the challenges WG4 has faced to inform our design for the next iteration of SEISMIC, continuing to work toward equity and inclusion in our collaboration.


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 alumnus of 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.