Creating space for critical conversations in chemistry: Lessons Learned from organizing DEIJR Symposia at national meetings of the American Chemical Society

Guizella Rocabado
Southern Utah University

Stephanie Feola
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Guizella Rocabado, Southern Utah University

Stephanie Feola, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Author Note: This is one of two blog series. This first post is written by Guizella Rocabado.

published Sep 13, 2023 3:53pm

Creating space for discussions and presentations about issues of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice, and Respect (DEIJR) is a means of building momentum for systemic change in discipline-based education research (DBER) communities. In this two-part blog, I, Guizella Rocabado, and co-organizer Stephanie Feola, will share the lessons we've learned throughout this change process. In this first installment, we will describe the lessons learned from instituting the change of creating a space for DEIJR research and conversations during the American Chemical Society National Meetings. In the second installment, we will share how the focus of the presentations, the nature of the discussions, and theorizing about DEIJR have changed since we began organizing the symposium in 2019 and draw implications for systemic change.

Developing the Symposium

The Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice, and Respect (DEIJR) Symposium at the American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting started in spring 2019 in Orlando, Florida. Every year since then, with the exception of spring 2020, this symposium has occurred with great success increasing attendance, and interest. Throughout these years, we have learned valuable lessons on intentionality and the impact of opening spaces to have difficult conversations about DEIJR topics.

In the summer of 2018 at the Biennial Conference in Chemical Education (BCCE) at Notre Dame, Indiana, Rebecca Gibbons and I, at the time, graduate students at the University of South Florida (USF) came up with the idea of holding a symposium entirely dedicated to Diversity and Inclusion topics. During BCCE, Rebecca and I attended several talks,engaged in many conversations that touched on the topics of inclusion and equity. Throughout the several days and activities, and we found that both researchers and practitioners were interested and ready to have these difficult but productive conversations when it came to chemistry education. On the last day at BCCE, Rebecca and I drafted the abstract of the symposium. At that time, our ideas and understanding of DEIJR in chemistry education were simple and novice, and noted that most people conflated the terms equality and equity quite often. We knew we needed to ask experts to educate us and the audience in order to make a greater impact in our classrooms and research. We decided to hold our symposium at the spring 2019 national meeting of the ACS, which conveniently was going to take place in Orlando, FL, only 60 miles away from our school. So, we got busy drafting an abstract for the symposium. After we received confirmation that our symposium was included in the conference agenda, we sent many emails inviting several experts well-known for their work in diversity and inclusion to submit their abstracts to this symposium.

Based on the number of abstract submissions, Rebecca and I made the choice to hold two sessions. Although we could have probably packed all of the speakers into one session, which is a typical format for research sessions at the ACS, we decided to provide the audience time to digest the information, as well as reflect and discuss their thoughts. The format of the sessions was not conventional; however, it was intentional. Rebecca and I thought these sessions could be informative and inspiring. To capitalize on the fresh information and the renewed inspiration, we purposefully added discussion time at the end of the session, designed to give the audience time to be active in the conversation.

The two sessions had slightly different formats. The first session had a keynote speaker, Dr. Donna Nelson, from the University of Oklahoma, former president of the ACS and well-known for work compiling data on race/ethnicity and binary gender of chemists in the U.S. After the keynote talk, we had a few scholars present their research, and ended the session with time for discussion (30 minutes). Two questions were presented to the audience for discussion. The time for rich conversation led to fruitful, intentional discussions that led to collaborations and initiated many changes in both practice and research. This was a time to help the audience internalize some of the concepts they had just learned about.

The second session began with several research talks, culminating with a talk co-presented by Rebecca and I titled "Who is underrepresented?" We compared IPEDS data of chemistry graduates in the U.S. with census data for the past 10 years and discovered the group that had the least representation in chemistry were Black/African American male students. To conclude the symposium, we added a longer discussion time (45 minutes) for the audience to discuss the implications of the various talks they had heard during the two sessions. The discussion time during both sessions was meaningful and encouraging. Several participants brought up topics for future discussion, including the importance of appropriate language to use when addressing various groups of people. This topic continues to be discussed and respectfully, albeit slowly, adopted into the working vocabularies of scholars engaged in this work.

Most of the participants enjoyed the addition of discussion time for reflection and some even initiated collaborations with the presenters or others in the audience. However, not everyone approved of the format. Following our symposium, Rebecca and I learned that some prominent figures in the field of chemistry education research (CER) did not think a discussion should be part of a formal setting such as a research symposium at the ACS National Meeting. And while we respected their opinions, we recognized that the very topic of our symposium challenges the Eurocentric format of the dissemination of research without dialogue. Therefore, knowing that the discussion time was the most meaningful throughout both of our sessions, we had a choice: to continue with this format or go back to sessions where only research talks are presented. We chose to retain the discussion and continue to challenge the norm.

Sustaining the Symposium as a Series 

Following the spring 2019 ACS meeting, Rebecca graduated, and Stephanie Feola, another graduate student from USF, assumed her role in organizing the symposium. In the fall of 2019, Stephanie and I submitted a fresh symposium abstract for the upcoming spring 2020 ACS meeting. This time, we made a deliberate effort by sending numerous emails to scholars, actively seeking individuals engaged in research on a broader spectrum of topics. Our goal was to gain deeper insights into the experiences of various minoritized groups in STEM, including LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities, and those from diverse intersectional backgrounds. Our aim was to use this knowledge to inform research and practices that would benefit all students. To our astonishment, we received twice as many abstract submissions as the previous year, prompting us to plan a four-session symposium, each session culminating with a dedicated 45-minute discussion. For these discussions, we decided to adopt a panel format, with the expert scholars who had presented their research in the respective sessions serving as panelists. Unfortunately, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic reached its peak, leading to the cancelation of the ACS conference.

Fall 2020 arrived, and Stephanie and I made the decision to resubmit the same abstract for the symposium as we had the previous year. However, the events of summer 2020, including the murder of George Floyd and many other Black/African Americans, brought about significant changes and a heightened awareness of the systemic issues that deeply affect our society, extending their influence into our classrooms and all corners of academia. As a result, we were even more enthusiastic about creating a forum where these challenging discussions could take place. Having successfully organized such events before, we were acutely aware that our symposium was now more essential than ever.

Just as in the previous year, we received a substantial number of abstracts, enough to accommodate four sessions with dedicated discussion time at the conclusion of each. In the spring of 2021, we successfully hosted a virtual symposium. In the weeks leading up to the conference, we reached out to the speakers via email. In this email, we included a survey where they could add their pronouns as well as the correct pronunciation of their name. We also inquired whether they would be willing to serve as expert panelists during the discussion segments within their respective sessions. Fortunately, all of the speakers agreed to participate. We provided speakers with two questions in advance to allow for thoughtful preparation for the panel discussions. The remaining time was allocated for questions and comments from the audience. To foster a more engaging and productive discussion, we also encouraged the audience to submit their questions, which Stephanie and I curated to ensure a respectful and fruitful conversation on these crucial topics.

Since spring 2021, the format of our symposium has remained consistent. In both 2022 and 2023, we have conducted four sessions, each followed by panel discussions. Over time, the topics of these sessions have evolved and changed, but our audience's interest and engagement has only grown. We are deliberate about respecting and acknowledging the names and pronouns of our speakers correctly. Additionally, we've witnessed an engaged audience unafraid to highlight areas where we can improve practices and show greater respect for one another. The experience of initiating and sustaining this symposium has been one of the most significant privileges and learning opportunities for me, and I sincerely hope it continues for many more years to come.

Suggested Citation

Rocabado, G. A. & Feola, S. (September 13, 2023). Creating space for critical conversations in chemistry: Lessons Learned from organizing DEIJR Symposia at national meetings of the American Chemical Society. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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