Student-led project brings ‘soul’ into science classrooms

Classroom image with student’s hand taking notes

Reflective journaling makes science courses more welcoming

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.

Tran’s inspiration came from an exercise in a class taught by Director of Asian American & Pacific Islander Student Services Arlene Daus-Magbual. 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 such 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 made the project a natural fit for SF BUILD, an initiative at SF State aimed at making the University environment more welcoming for underrepresented students pursuing biomedical careers, which has funded the project since then.

Since their humble beginnings, the project has expanded to include all courses in SF State’s Supplemental Instruction program, a set of one-unit courses linked to large introductory classes that offer additional support to students in a smaller classroom setting. The journaling and discussion exercises have also been incorporated into the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s intro lab courses thanks to 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,” said Coble. “They’re operating at a Ph.D. level.”

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 students and their sense of belonging. And nowhere is that impact clearer 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.”