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W&M professor awarded NSF grant to research diversity leadership in geosciences

  • Altering reality:
    Altering reality:  Jason Chen, assistant professor of educational psychology at W&M, is developing virtual reality training systems to teach university faculty in the geosciences how to recognize and address prejudice.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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In the world of virtual reality, flying, climbing Everest and traveling back in time are just a few of the feats one can accomplish. But all of that pales in comparison to the mission of Jason Chen, assistant professor of educational psychology at William & Mary, who plans to use virtual reality for a greater good — to eliminate prejudice and fuel innovation in higher education. 

Thanks to a recent grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Chen is embarking on a two-year project this month that aims to develop a virtual simulation training system for university faculty in the geosciences that addresses ways to recognize and eliminate prejudice in the field. GEOscience Diversity Experiential Simulations, or GEODES, will give participants firsthand practice at confronting issues of prejudice in the workplace and starting conversations with key gatekeepers within their institutions around diversity.

“A lot of what traditional diversity training does is to try and change people’s beliefs,” said Chen. “They’ll often show slideshows or videos that tell you what to do and what not to do. The philosophy is that if you change people’s beliefs you’ll start to change the way they behave, and that never really works. So we’re taking an opposite approach; we’re helping people come up with the behaviors that reflect those beliefs.”

Chen was awarded the grant after responding to a call for proposals from the NSF, which was interested in funding projects that trained a cadre of diversity champions in the geosciences, a field notorious for a lack of diversity, said Chen, compared to other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. 

“The reason why diversity is so important is that there’s a lot of evidence developing that shows that heterogenous groups consistently out-perform and out-innovate homogenous groups,” said Chen. “So if the geosciences continue to remain so homogenous, they might be missing out on opportunities to create more innovative science.”

During the early stages of GEODES, Chen will be finding and interviewing geosciences students and professors around the country to learn more about the ways in which prejudice affected them or the ways in which they observed prejudice at their home institutions. 

“If you want to know what impedes diversity efforts in the geosciences you have to know what it looks like, where it’s coming from and what context it takes place in — does it happen in job interviews, in classes or in field work?” said Chen. 

The information gleaned from the interviews will be the inspiration for developing the scenarios portrayed in the simulations. Each of the three simulations developed will present a different environment familiar to geoscientists where discrimination might take place and ask them to recognize the issue and address it in an appropriate manner. Once the simulations are developed, Chen will test them out on geosciences faculty around the country.

“Prejudice in the present day looks very different than it did in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” said Chen. “It’s often rooted in coded language and actions, which makes it easy as a bystander to just shrug your shoulders and move along. It takes a lot of social tact to know when and how to say the right thing.”

In addition to training participants to confront prejudice as it happens, they’ll also be learning ways to be proactive in starting conversations around diversity at their institution in the hopes of creating change on a systemic level. 

“This is a leadership development program, so we also want to help these participants become advocates at their institutions for diversity and dismantling prejudice,” said Chen. “We’ll teach them the places they need to go, the people they need to talk to, and the ways to start those conversations and see them through to the end.” 

While the simulations are just for research purposes at the moment and will be tailored to the geosciences, Chen said he could see the simulations someday being available on a larger scale for all institutions to adopt and altered to fit the needs of different fields as well.

“I don’t think any intervention either works or it doesn’t,” said Chen. “It’s a lot more nuanced than that. So if we find out what works well for these types of people in these contexts, we might be able to figure out how we can make it work for more people in larger contexts. Those are the questions we’re trying to answer right now.”