Building Inclusion in STEM Through Activation of Multicontext Theory

Professional Photo of Gary Weissmann
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Gary Weissmann, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences
University of New Mexico
Professional photo of Roberto Ibarra
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Roberto Ibarra, Ph.D.
Associate Professor Emeritus Sociology
University of New Mexico
Dr. Calvin Briggs
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Calvin Briggs, Ed.D.
Executive Director
The Southern Center for Broadening Participation in STEM

Caption: Students participate in an environmental science class that uses Multicontext Theory to develop systems thinking skills and build an inclusive learning environment. (Image credit: Gary Weissmann)

Our journey begins with a story by co-author, Roberto Ibarra, and his discovery of a new paradigm for enhancing diversity as he analyzed his social science study of Latino and Latina graduate students, faculty, administrators, and some who left academe.1,11

Roberto Ibarra:

My objectives: investigate why so few Latinx entered graduate education and explore how they achieved success in graduate education and beyond.1,11 The study population (i.e., multilevel, multigenerational, academically successful Latinos and Latinas) revealed unexpected clues. I was puzzled by the frequent mention, often from Latina participants, of conflicts between traditional academic cultures and faculty, students, administrators, and non-academics. Participants said discrimination played a role in these conflicts, but these microaggressions could be dealt with much more readily than the conflicts encountered in academic culture. For example, one participant recalled a critique he wrote stating, “If this [article] is all true, maybe we should have all gone to plumbing school….’ The professor wrote back… ‘You know, if it wasn’t for Affirmative Action programs maybe that’s where you would be.” Such incidents were often recounted as graduate school “horror stories” about obstacles to overcome while getting a degree, but the chronic complaints from both students and faculty relating to rules, roles, and mentoring relationships in professional academic culture was unexpected and often more difficult to handle. Further investigation on my campus revealed Chicano undergraduates had similar complaints about their Chicano faculty claiming they “forgot who they were” with no mention of discrimination. All these issues pointed towards dissonance with academic culture beyond racial or gender discrimination.1 

The study showed that something significant and undetected within academic culture was negatively impacting both students and faculty in similar ways.

I was reminded of cultural models by Hall,2-5 whose ideas describing culture, context and cognition matched closely with the comments and behavioral patterns expressed by interviewees. Contrasting Hall’s model of High Context (HC) ethnic minority cultures with Low Context (LC) Euro American cultures led to breakthroughs expanding the current paradigm about teaching and learning in higher education. Ramírez and colleagues6-8 generated a parallel theoretical model. Their work contrasted Field-Sensitive learninga styles predominant among Mexican Americans and other minorities with the Field-Independentb styles of Euro American males producing a theory of Bicognition,c which complemented Hall’s context model. Finally, faculty survey data from the Higher Education Research Institute1 not only supported Hall’s observations that cultural patterns among Latinos and other targeted minority populations tended to be HC, but also revealed examples of how hidden patterns of academic culture could cause the conflicts expressed by participants in the Latino study. Synthesizing cultural context, cognition, and ethnic identity generated a Multicontextual configuration explaining cultural dissonance in academia. This dissonance disproportionately impacts underrepresented minorities (URMs) and women.1,9,10

Enter Multicontext Theory

Roberto’s research uncovered a new paradigm that had not been fully described elsewhere in research literature. He formulated a new concept with terms that had to differentiate it from other diversity-oriented frameworks such as multiculturalism. This new idea we call Multicontext Theory1 (MT) combines cultural context2-5 and cognition6-8 into a powerful Multicontextual model that can transform our educational systems from the individual level of classrooms and labs9,10 to the organizational level with potential for large-scale institutional change.1,9

Gary’s introduction to MT came during a faculty seminar on teaching toward cultural strengths, organized by Alicia Chávez (Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of New Mexico) and Susan Longerbeam (Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at Northern Arizona University).

Gary Weissmann:

As part of this seminar, we read Roberto’s book.1 I had long thought that the reason for low diversity among faculty ranks was due to problems with the academic culture, and similar academic culture problems were responsible for the lack of diversity in STEM students, but I could never fully articulate what about the academic culture was the problem. I rejected the student deficit model so often proffered by colleagues (e.g., students just aren’t prepared) since many of my students who struggled in some classes (especially calculus and physics) seemed to do quite well in my classes that applied concepts from these classes. After reading Chapter 3 of Roberto’s book, where he lays out the dimensions of MT and defines the concepts, I finally had words to describe these problems and barriers in academic culture. Through our discussions since meeting Roberto, first in that faculty seminar and later in a University of New Mexico (UNM) Diversity Council meeting, I realized that MT offered ways to change academic culture, broadening the academic values to be more inclusive of many ways of knowing and doing and offer ways to improve science and scientific understandings. We began the journey of activating MT in STEM that we describe here.

Our focus here explains how and why hidden dimensions of academic culture hinders full participation in a diverse academic workforce in STEM. We observe that currently entrenched academic STEM cultural values are embedded with specific ways of knowing and doing derived from a centuries-old Northern European, elite white male approach to higher education research while simultaneously devaluing others and their valid ways of perceiving and interacting1,10. Though these are strong statements, we found the MT paradigm not only provides answers for solving chronic problems in achieving diversity, equity and inclusion from a totally different perspective than provided by current diversity, but it also offers potentially new pathways to move STEM and scientific understanding forward in significant ways.

How Does MT Work?

MT describes different forms of value systems around ways of knowing and doing that are culturally based. It also explains and predicts the inclusion or exclusion of people within an institutional culture.

LC culture tends to value individuated, linear-logical approaches to understanding the world.1,9,10 It is task-oriented, so meetings focus on completing the task at hand, often disregarding how people feel about the process to completing the task. Time becomes a commodity emphasizing deadlines and schedules. This approach tends to compartmentalize the world, therefore, classification systems and disciplinary divisions seem natural. Additionally, the purpose for learning in LC cultures is often for gaining knowledge.

Conversely, HC culture tends to value communal relationships and advances understanding the world from a systems approach.  It is process-oriented and values making sure everyone in a group is feeling okay prior to tackling a task. Time is adaptable allowing for whatever time is necessary to complete tasks, therefore deadlines are flexible, not firm targets. HC people find compartmentalization and classification challenging since the systemic approach leads to more exceptions to classifications than make sense. The purpose for learning in HC cultures tends to be for the betterment of community and those close to them.

Details about these different ways of knowing and doing are found in Ibarra,1 Weissmann et al.,9 Chávez and Longerbeam,10 and in the CD matrix. Though we describe attributes of MT as a binary, academically successful people tend to operate on a full spectrum between these end members and shift to either an LC or HC mode depending on the situation.

Activating the full spectrum of Multicontextual approaches (e.g., both LC and HC approaches and everything in between) is important; however, contemporary academic culture, originally patterned after a very LC 19th century German research institute model,1,10 traditionally only values LC ways of knowing and doing. Many ideas described as fostering inclusion fit into the MT model. For example, giving back to the community and conducting interdisciplinary and/or community-based research has been shown to be important to many URMs and women,12 reflecting HC values. Yet, the LC values prescribed under the tenure system minimizes the importance of this type of work. Similarly, the systems-oriented thinking of HC approaches may not jive well with compartmentalization of topics common in STEM fields. For example, geoscientists (Gary’s discipline) typically teach classes focused on subdisciplines (e.g., mineralogy, petrology, sedimentology, and structural geology). These topics separate our discipline into logical categories; however, they often ignore a holistic approach to understanding the Earth. Therefore, this LC approach to compartmentalizing geology challenges HC-oriented students and dissuades them from gaining a holistic understanding of Earth Science (and similarly in other STEM fields).

Our point is that LC ways of knowing and doing are not wrong and are valuable, since most of the scientific advances we enjoy come from this LC approach. However, the strong focus on only activating LC ways is incomplete and excludes HC-oriented people. This imbalance inherently devalues valid HC approaches, effectively hindering novel ways to conduct true multi-disciplinary research of complex systems.

What can we do?

We use a systemic model for activation of MT called Context Diversity.1,9  It is achieved when the norms, values and practices of an organization are inclusive of Multicontexted ways of knowing and doing. How do we incorporate Context Diversity into our programs, thus activating MT?

The first step is awareness of this new direction towards understanding diversity and inclusion and that it is compatible with racialized approaches to diversity. Recognizing that the complete Multicontext spectrum of ways of knowing and doing holds value, and that one approach is not “better” than the other – we need to activate the full Multicontext spectrum for success in STEM. Activating a Multicontext approach can tap into the strengths that all people bring to the table.

The good thing about the MT approach is that it already exists everywhere – we just need to activate it in our teaching and academic world.

Next steps are to bring Multicontextual approaches to teaching by shifting curricula to reflect not only the details and disciplinary understandings but also the holistic understandings of how these disciplines interconnect to better understand the complexity of the systems we are trying to comprehend.

Two students participate in data collection. A masked woman on the left holds up a square tool made of PVC pipe. The masked woman on the right holds up a glass jar full of sediment collected from the Rio Grande water supply.

Students in the field work together to collect data and sediment from the Rio Grande water supply near Albuquerque. This LC activity is linked to a HC activity where students write about the larger interconnected system of the Rio Grande, including human activities. (Image credit: Sofia Jenkins-Nieto)

View examples of activating MT in classrooms and beyond below.

These broader values also improve faculty tenure/promotion systems by appreciating the significance of HC approaches and valuing community-based, interdisciplinary and/or process-oriented/systems approaches to tackling academic work. Activation creates inclusive environments that will attract diverse populations to the professoriate and help everyone thrive. Preliminary trends from our current research project indicate that all people benefit from activating MT, but since many URMs and women tend to be more HC-oriented in their approaches, following the MT paradigm can result in racialized diversity, as well.

A Call to Action!!!

As society faces disastrous environmental problems (e.g., the 10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments), we are convinced that Multicontexted approaches are needed to solve these dilemmas. Compartmentalization and disciplinary approaches help us understand details within complex systems, but without holistic HC approaches that naturally view the complexity of those systems, we may miss critical connections between the details that disciplinary approaches provide. These systemic blind-spots can naturally be filled by Multicontexted people providing new perspectives to reframe these systems.

Now is the time to reframe academic culture to be more inclusive, and MT clearly articulates a pathway forward. Let’s expand “normal” values from the predominant LC approach to appreciate and value the entire Multicontext spectrum and make culture change happen in STEM!

Activating Multicontext Theory

Here are some ways of activating MT:
  • I (Gary) have been activating MT in my geoscience and environmental science classrooms through several means. For example, Diane Doser (professor of geoscience at University of Texas at El Paso) and I developed an activity for environmental science classes, where MT is used to develop systems thinking skills through observation of the Rio Grande ecosystem (published at the Science Education Resource Center site). We begin the activity with broad observations of the system of the Bosque (the cottonwood forest along the Rio Grande).This consists of a 30-minute session where students are told to write about or diagram “the system” of the Bosque, including human activities, especially focusing on connections between things in this system (a HC activity). We later begin focusing on one aspect of the system, linking the cottonwood growth and age to flooding and deposition of sediment along the Rio Grande, where we measure sand bar height and tree diameters (a LC activity). Ultimately, the students explore the intimate connections between cottonwood growth, river dynamics, and human activities along this reach of the river. This activity mixes LC and HC approaches so that we not only build inclusion into the curriculum, but we also teach important skills in developing systems thinking using the broad MT spectrum. 
Two masked students sit at a lab bench. The woman on the left peers over one of the two beakers filled with murky beige water. The woman on the right faces the other beaker and references material on her cellphone.

Back in the lab, students work in groups to conduct an initial analysis of the sediments collected to determine whether microplastics are present. The details of their findings will inform the holistic picture of the Rio Grande and help students understand the complexity of these systems. (Image credit: Gary Weissmann)

  • In other activities, we use a “one-page” survey to help identify LC, MC or HC orientations in students, forming groups for activities of similar context orientations then mixing the groups at a later time. We find that when students understand MT in this manner it reduces feelings of exclusion and promotes successful navigation through academia.
  • Chávez and Longerbeam10 and Weissmann et al.9 describe other approaches to tapping into student strengths in the classroom, broadening what we value as “excellence” in academic work.
  • For additional examples of how one can activate MT, watch “Context Diversity: A New Paradigm for Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education” starting at 39:02.


Field-Sensitive Learninga

“Field sensitive learners are learners who like to work in groups to achieve a common goal. They like to help others and tend to be sensitive to the opinions, ideas and feelings of others. They look to the teacher for guidance and demonstration.”13

Field-Independent Learningb

“A field-independent learning style is defined by a tendency to separate details from the surrounding context. Field-independent learners tend to rely less on the teacher or other learners for support.”13


Bicognition is the ability to randomly switch cognitive styles to adjust to a variety of activities and social environments.1,8


This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1619524. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We also appreciate feedback received from Calvin Briggs and Thomas Veague.


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