The ASCB Minorities Affairs Committee’s (MAC’s) Faculty Research Education Development (FRED) program helped me to secure National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates funding1 and to cultivate institutional partnerships to promote inclusion and equity for Native American, Latinx, and nontraditional undergraduates in biology and biomedical research experiences at Heritage University. Heritage University is a private, nonprofit, four-year liberal arts university serving undergraduates on the homeland of the Yakama Nation in Washington State. Over 90% of undergraduates at Heritage University are eligible for Pell Grants.
At Heritage University, I integrated Karen Gross’ novel concept of lasticity with culturally responsive teaching approaches2–7 to promote inclusion and equity for all undergraduates in the general biology classroom and lab settings. Gross defines lasticity as a combination of conditions that fall under an “umbrella concept” that illuminates a process by which at-risk learners are able to succeed in post-secondary education.8,9 The term at-risk learner (or breakaway learner) refers to individuals “who have experienced toxic stress or trauma or other impediments in their lives to flourish in childhood and thereafter in education and in life.” Lasticity contains the following key building blocks: elasticity, reciprocity, pivoting right, plasticity, and belief in self.
I applied the concept of lasticity to implement flexible times (or flex times) for team experiments.
Here, I describe a practical example of how the concept of lasticity is rooted within culturally responsive teaching and mentoring in undergraduate biology courses. I applied the concept of lasticity to implement flexible times (or flex times) for team experiments in course-based undergraduate research settings (CUREs) over the course of the semester. Flex times enables students who have two jobs or family members to attend to, the opportunity to succeed during the semester in their research team project.
In applying lasticity, I first think about reciprocity—shared discussion alongside our student scholars—and being mindful of students’ family obligations, their role as caretaker for their loved ones, and student services on campus. I then begin thinking of pivoting right—when I ask the student scholars what time(s) work best with them and their team, and then think creatively about how I can arrange lab accommodation in an effective way. (In her book on lasticity, Gross defines pivoting right as the “importance of all children [all people] making wise choices and exhibiting quality decision making.” 9) During this time, I acknowledge that as an instructor this is a moment of vulnerability and opportunity—I instill belief in self not only for me, but also for each student scholar to navigate through this experience. As I begin to finalize the additional flex time for CUREs, I encourage the research team to collect data at multiple time points so they can analyze patterns over time—for example looking at the long-term effects of tinta china (India ink) on the rate of phagocytosis in Tetrahymena thermophila. Elasticity and plasticity were woven together for the community of learners and scholars. Over time, I now see myself not only as an instructor, but also as an advocate and mentor of the research time during flex times. Through flex time within a lasticity framework, research teams are able to explore in-depth the biological patterns that change over time and space through their CUREs—each student has the opportunity to think like a scientist.
References and Footnotes
1NSF REU, # 1852032, REU Site: A Transformative Approach for Engaging First-Generation Underrepresented Minorities in a Research Experience.
2Bang MM, Medin D, Cajete G (2009). Improving science education for Native Students: Teaching place through community. SACNAS News 12(1), 8–10.
3Cajete GA (1999). Igniting the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Model. Skyand, NC: Kivai Press.
4Gay G (2010). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York and London: Teachers College Press.
5Ross, KA (2016). Breakthrough Strategies: Classroom-Based Practices to Support New Majority College Students. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.
6Valdez R (2016). Relationships between First Generation College Students and Faculty: A Case Study of a Small Rural Private University. (Doctor of Education), University of Washington.
7Kao RM (2018). Helping students SOAR: Quizfolio tips to engauge first generation underrepresented minority undergraduates in scientific inquiry. The American Biology Teacher 80(3), 228–234.
8Gross K. Breakaway Learners. Retrieved from
9Gross K (2017). Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students. New York and London: Teachers College Press.
About the Author:
Bob Kao is an assistant professor in Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Heritage University in Toppenish, WA. He is a former ASCB FRED mentee who worked with Julian Simon at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center as his mentor.