Student-led project brings ‘soul’ into science classrooms

A shorter version of this article was published on the SF State News website

July 16, 2019 — In spring 2017, 57 students in San Francisco State University science courses spent five minutes of class time writing in a journal. Then they spent five minutes talking about what they wrote. That seemingly insignificant exercise sparked a quiet revolution — one that has spread from those first 57 students to more than 1,800.

The journaling exercise, part of a student-run initiative called the Alma Project, is a way to give students the space to express themselves in their science courses. “When we walk into that first biology class, I always feel like we're not our authentic selves. We just zip up this new identity so we can assimilate into that particular setting,” said Khanh Tran, a recent San Francisco State graduate and one of the project’s two leaders. “I feel like my experiences as an immigrant or as a queer person, that’s what makes me a stronger person.”

The team started with just three courses, asking students to write and discuss questions that were more personal than what you would usually hear in a science classroom: less “Do I understand this topic?” and more “Why am I here?”

Watching these exercises happen weekly over the course of the semester, the team discovered that providing students with the space to reflect on and talk about their identity tends to spark a sense of closeness. “By the end, they come into the classroom as a group instead of one person at a time. I see that every semester,” said Tran. They also noticed that the exercises closed the gap between students and instructor since the person leading the class also participates in the exercise.

Tran’s inspiration came from an exercise in a class with Director of Asian American & Pacific Islander Student Services. Recent graduate Imani Davis, the project’s other leader, had a similar reaction to her courses in SF State’s College of Ethnic Studies, where similar exercises are often built into the curriculum. “Our science classes were more content-based, while our ethnic studies classes were more building a relationship to what we were learning and bringing our experiences into the content,” Davis explained. The project’s name reflects its focus on the individual: Alma is the Spanish word for “soul.”

There’s research to show that this kind of journaling can benefit students, especially those from underrepresented groups. That focus made the project a natural fit for SF BUILD. With the help of former SF State faculty member Alegra Eroy-Reveles, the team received funding through SF BUILD — and they also found their first classes of students through the Supplemental Instruction (SI) program, a set of student-taught classes that offer additional support for introductory science courses.

Since their humble beginnings, the team has grown to eight students, and their journaling exercises have made their way into every one of the University’s SI classes. They’ve also expanded the project to include the intro lab courses in the Department of Physics and Astronomy with the help of Professor of Physics and Astronomy Kim Coble, who specializes in science education. “I'm just so impressed with each of them: as individuals — their personal stories — and how they’ve worked as a team to do this work,” said Coble. “They’re operating at a Ph.D. level.”

As the exercises caught on, the team has accumulated a wealth of information in the form of student journals, which they’re analyzing to understand the skills that allow students to navigate and persist through their college education. The students have taken their work on the road, too, presenting it at the Understanding Interventions Conference in Baltimore this March and at this year’s CSU Student Research Competition, where Tran placed second in the education category.

Although the Alma Project is staggeringly large for a student-led intervention, Tran says that reach is secondary to their goal — more important is the project’s impact on individual students’ sense of belonging. And nowhere is that impact more clear than in the case of Mireya Arreguin, who was in the first class of journaling students in 2017. Struck by the impact of journaling, she decided to join the team as a researcher. Now that both of the team’s leaders have graduated, she’s making sure it lives on by taking over as the project leader in the fall. 

“I saw the project had a purpose, and it was going to help other students like me who felt out of place in a big community,” Arreguin said. “It really helped me connect with other people who I didn’t know were like me.”