Joel K. Abraham understands the impact instructors’ behaviors and attitudes can have on students. One of his goals as a Cal State Fullerton professor of biological science is to communicate to his students that they belong.
His commitment to student engagement, equity and inclusion earned him the university’s 2022 Carol Barnes Excellence in Teaching Award.
Abraham, who joined CSUF in 2011, is committed to using teaching methods that focus on safety, inclusion and acceptance. His work aims to create research opportunities, courses and programs that can apply to his students’ identities and everyday lives.
“Nothing in my job brings me more satisfaction than helping students move closer to their goals or find strength in themselves that they didn’t recognize was there,” Abraham said. “I’m honored to have received this award but know that I still have much to learn about effective and equitable teaching. Luckily, this campus is full of caring instructors and students to learn from.”
Inclusive Teaching in Science
Abraham said CSUF students, who come from various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, may experience imposter syndrome when studying biological science.
His contributions to such courses as “Evolution and Organismal Biology” and “CNSM 201: STEMinar” help students connect classroom activities to career goals and develop professional skills, while also supporting their sense of belonging in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
For instance, he developed case studies about CSUF faculty members, their research, and their personal and professional experiences. Students could learn how to navigate a scientific paper while also connecting with faculty who struggled with imposter syndrome or unconscious bias as students, Abraham said.
“Dr. Abraham centers his teaching around two principles of responsiveness to students and engagement in the practice of science,” CSUF President Fram Virjee said. “He understands that some students may need a fresh approach and he teaches through a lens of equity and inclusion. Many students feel like imposters in the classroom, so he’s transformed his classroom so that students not only survive but thrive.”
To further help students unable to join a research lab or training programs, Abraham advocates for Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) — collaborative classroom learning environments where students can address a research problem of public interest in multiple phases.
For example, Abraham redesigned a “Plant Ecology” course to include semester-long group independent projects. Similarly, Abraham’s capstone course, “Seminar in Biology Education,” encourages teaching as a career path by providing students with authentic teaching experiences with local middle school students.
“By building authentic experiences into courses, I know I can provide all students with the opportunity to participate in research,” Abraham said. “This can open doors to graduate school, field-based careers, or science teaching opportunities.”
Research and Professional Development
Abraham researches such topics as inclusion and equity in science education, skill development in science, computer-based instruction and assessment, and plant ecology. As a student research adviser, he is collaborating with graduate students on two studies focused on equity and inclusion.
One study involving introductory biology students assesses their changes in attitude, self-awareness and sense of belonging. Another study analyzes the experiences of high school students who study physiology and have varying English language proficiencies.
In his role as director of the university’s Catalyst Center for the Advancement of Research in Teaching and Learning Math and Science, Abraham oversees the center’s “Catalyst Teaching Lunches” and “Catalyze Teaching!” programs. These programs encourage educators to infuse authentic professional experiences into STEM courses and promote inclusive practices.
Such practices include addressing biases when handling SAT scores and GPAs unrelated to student research and co-creating individualized career plans with research students.
This year, Abraham became a Department of Biological Science faculty mentor and helps organize professional development sessions specific to College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics instructors. He is also helping develop a summer bridge program for students who are new to the college, so they can gain research experience and build community at CSUF.