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BioE JEDI Corner Interview with Erik Brown

Erik Brown, associate creative director at Stanford Digital Education sits down with us to discuss lessons learned through his experiences with making education accessible.

What are the responsibilities of an elite educational institution such as Stanford in expanding STEM accessibility beyond the bounds of its student ecosystem? 

With less than 30% of American adults qualifying as scientifically literate in a world growing increasingly dependent on scientific and technological innovation1, we are entering a future where the ~1% with a research background are unilaterally shaping the fates of our medicine, agriculture, energy systems, and more. As science becomes an increasingly crucial conduit for addressing social challenges, the need to empower our non-scientist community members to make informed decisions about how and whether to engage with rising technologies grows critical.

Given this dichotomous landscape of innovation and inequality, what role must elite academic institutions such as Stanford embody to support the pursuit of science accessibility? How can our community – our students, professors, staff, and greater institution – engage, such that our collective action can power greater science literacy? Stanford already seeks to illustrate a spirit of inclusion and community engagement with its internal diversity, myriad of initiatives dedicated to educational equity, and faculty and students with penchants for addressing social injustices through their research and entrepreneurship. How can we lean further into the goal of democratizing science more broadly? 

Welcome to Stanford Bioengineering’s JEDI Corner. In this series, we hope to explore these questions and more, through interviews with DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) participants and practitioners here at Stanford. For our inaugural interview, we contacted Erik Brown, associate creative director at Stanford Digital Education (SDE) and producer of hundreds of online courses for universities such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley.

Erik Brown and Shreya Garg discuss lessons learned from their work with BIOE 80. Photo credit: Helen Dang

Early in his filmmaking career, Erik helped produce documentaries in highly stratified cities such as London and New York. “I was living in New Jersey, in a town that had 70,000 people. If it had 30,000 more, it’d be labeled a city, and if it were a city, it would be the murder capital of the country. Simultaneously, I was working a block away from Wall Street. I got to appreciate the disparities around race, access, and class.” Eventually, he had the opportunity to work with MIT as a digital content creator for its massive online open course (MOOC) initiative (now MIT OpenCourseWare). At the time, the MOOC movement had become popular among universities as a medium for providing online education to the general public. Erik realized that, as the sites of discovery and science, these institutions hold the power to either bridge educational divides through community engagement or to exacerbate them by commercializing knowledge. He decided to pursue this dissonance further. In his current position at SDE, he is now focused on how digital pathways can enhance equity by bringing a Stanford-like education to underserved communities outside of the university.

What can Stanford do to break free of educational power structures to diversify better and democratize the STEM disciplines?

“Stanford’s greatest value comes from its network and campus community. The education itself, however, is not unique to Stanford by any means. If I take mechanics or chemistry or engineering courses here versus at any other school, the knowledge is all the same. So, at the end of the day, education shouldn’t be the thing we’ve commodified. I think there’s a responsibility for us to give education away as much as possible.” 

Erik goes on to cite that by creating accessible free education platforms, both Stanford and its students reap the benefits. “If Stanford gives away some of that base knowledge, especially the prerequisite knowledge, then incoming classes are better prepared. The network we’re fostering has the best and the brightest – not because of discrepancies around access and wealth distribution, but by a general right to knowledge.”

You helped lead an initiative to offer Stanford courses to high schoolers from marginalized backgrounds. Can you talk about your experience?

“During the 2023 Winter Quarter, Stanford Digital Education joined professors Drew Endy and Jennifer Brophy from the Department of Bioengineering to virtually offer BioE 80: Introduction to Bioengineering to Title I high schoolers (where over 40% of the student body comes from low-income households) across the country. The program, which reached 158 students in nine schools in California, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, and Florida, engaged high schoolers in topics ranging from synthetic biology to CAR-T cell therapy and was supported by bioengineering undergraduate and graduate section leaders. The initiative was conducted in partnership with the National Education Equity Lab (NEEL), a nonprofit that brings college classes from selective universities to underserved high school students for credit at no cost.”

This particular effort featured a unique component pioneered by Erik. “To ensure that students could envision themselves as future bioengineers, we introduced a BioNaut Interviews module, where we interviewed bioengineers from historically underrepresented backgrounds about their research, successes, and challenges as a resource for students,” he said.

The teaching team’s initial vision for the course was to give their high schoolers an experience as similar as possible to the “brick-and-mortar” experience of current Stanford students. “A few weeks into its pilot run, however, our virtual students began falling behind and losing their initial enthusiasm,” Erik said. It was clear to the BioE 80 team that course content needed to be tailored towards a new set of student needs. He explained: 

“We immediately began surveying and working with students on ways to restructure their material. Through this student-educator collaboration, the program staff was able to understand the extended needs of the students we hoped to serve. We realized that, in some respects, we were originally doing a disservice in demanding that the students ‘become us.’ The equity breaks down. These are underserved high school students being asked to handle p-sets and academic workloads equivalent to that of our own students who, comparatively, have extensive experience in science and engineering. This challenge is present in addition to outside stressors, such as a lack of home Internet, English as a secondary language, and time dedicated towards caregiving in their families.”

Erik elaborated on how the teaching team used the data gathered to inform their renewed efforts for this year’s course iteration. With the goal of prioritizing student agency and creativity, they have designed new labs, activities, and assignments, all following prior student feedback. They have also introduced greater accessibility measures, such as hiring Spanish-speaking teaching assistants and adding office hour time slots during after-school and lunch periods for students without Internet access at home.

By examining community perspectives and inviting student voices into the conversation around accessible education, Erik and his team at Stanford Digital Education hope to more effectively tackle the disparities affecting marginalized demographics. 

What future steps can Stanford take to address these educational disparities?

“We have valuable resources such as the Graduate School of Education and the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL),” Erik said. “We can hire someone from the CTL to audit our course and give us insights based on their knowledge or reach out to our target communities for feedback.” 

Erik also highlights the importance of collaborative advocacy: “Bring in the community you are trying to serve, rather than making unilateral decisions from the top down, and allow them to inform you. One of the best ways to have the greatest impact is by allowing the communities you serve to have a seat at the table, to contribute and design with you along the way.” 

Students, whether at Stanford or from the communities served by NEEL and SDE, embody a relevant, diverse, and accessible voice that should be involved in the creation process of their own education. Erik underscored that we have as much to learn from our students as we have to give them – if not more. “One thing that Stanford has in spades is amazing students, and it’s okay and important to let students serve as a proxy for educators,” he said.

If actions such as Stanford’s partnership with NEEL are a small step towards science accessibility, what’s our big leap? As a globally renowned university and research organization, Stanford has the power to model equitable relationships between institutions of higher learning and their larger communities. Teams like SDE and BIOE80 educators are working diligently to more broadly disseminate access to higher education, prioritizing collaboration at the forefront of their advocacy. The diverse voices of students, community members, faculty, and partners like NEEL can and should help shape Stanford’s pursuit of wider scientific literacy.


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