Power in Numbers: A recap of Talithia Williams’ keynote at the 2018 Diversity Forum

The annual UW-Madison Diversity Forum was October 31 and November 1 last week at Union South. Talithia Williams, professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in California, gave an excellent keynote presentation titled “Power in Numbers: Data-Driven Decision Making for Inclusive Education.” She researches the spatiotemporal structure of data. Dr. Williams is a co-host of Nova Wonders, a 6-part PBS series exploring big questions on the frontiers of science, like “What’s the universe made of?” and “Can we make life?” She is the author of Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics, which tells the stories of women who have made important contributions to the field.

To ground the discussion in data, Dr. Williams also included several charts and graphs about access to and participation in higher education. She invited us to reflect, discuss, and share our observations about the data.

Dr. Williams shared stories from her experience as a woman of color in STEM; she also highlighted several opportunities to make our institutions and classrooms more inclusive: inclusive faculty recruitment, welcoming and supporting students, and outreach programs.

Inclusive Faculty Recruitment

You may be familiar with or have taken UW-Madison’s workshop “Breaking the Bias Habit,” which challenges participants to reflect on their own biases and how those affect the hiring process. Dr. Williams described the process used at Harvey Mudd College to conduct interviews. Candidates are given scenarios based on real classroom occurrences, and they are asked how they would respond in those situations. Interviewers then rate the responses on a 1-5 scale based on example responses. Level 5 responses indicate that the candidate has clear understanding and ability to use inclusive practices.

Welcoming and Supporting Students

Dr. Williams described several strategies she uses to support historically underserved students. She requires that all students attend office hours or the tutoring center so that they are comfortable seeking support. She pre-assigns groups for homework and projects so that students don’t form cliques or get left out. To address underrepresentation, she uses a variety of names in mathematical story problems. An especially interesting tactic is that she will often refuse to proceed with a lecture until students have asked at least 3 questions. By framing it that way, students who ask questions are helping the class to continue.

Outreach Programs (#datasciencebeginsathome)

Dr. Williams shared stories from her experiences as a high school student, undergraduate, graduate student, faculty member, and parent. To create connections prior to students’ college experience, Harvey Mudd hosts pre-college programs that include workshops for parents. Department members communicate with admitted students and their parents to answer questions and assuage fears. Upon entrance to the program, students are matched with faculty mentors to provide an additional sense of belonging and connection.

This presentation was a great fit this year’s Forum theme, “Beyond the numbers: Relationships, retention, and reality.” The Diversity Forum is sponsored by the UW-Madison Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement.

To watch the entire keynote presentation, click here.