Improving practice in undergraduate science education

Of all the STEM education symposia titles scheduled for the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, the one title bearing the words "undergraduate" and "research," co-organized by Jay Labov of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Susan Singer, Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and Martin Storksdieck of the National Research Council, seeks to take stock of recent history—notable studies, policy reports, and disciplinary conferences—to inform future actions. 

AAASMC talked with Labov, Singer and Storksdieck about what attendees can expect from the session Undergraduate Science Education at a Crossroad: Responding to Research Findings, that will take place on Saturday, February 16 from 8:30-11:30 a.m. in room 210 of the Hynes Convention Center.

AAASMC:  What's the rationale for the symposium, and why now?
Jay Labov of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Susan Singer, Professor of Biology and Bognitive Science at Carleton College, and Martin Storksdieck of the National Research Council:  The United States has entered what might be an historic period in focusing on the improvement of STEM education for all students. This is manifested in several ways by different organizations that have heretofore worked independently, but appear to be converging on a common set of principles to guide future efforts.

AAASMC:  Please illustrate the "convergence."
Labov, Singer adn Storksdieck:  At the K-12 level, the Next Generation Science Standards are scheduled to be released at the end of March 2013. These standards are based on a Framework for K-12 Science Education that was published by the National Research Council in 2011. The Common Core Standards for Mathematics and English Language Arts (released in 2012 and now adopted by 47 states) includes standards for helping students to learn science and connect it with other primary subjects. In Fall 2012, The College Board began a program to introduce completely restructured courses in advanced placement biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental science. The restructured AP biology course was implemented this academic year, with chemistry to follow in 2013-14, and physics and environmental science the year thereafter. A common thread is the learning of science and math through relevant disciplinary practices, emphasizing big ideas and building coherence across grades. 

AAASMC:  What about higher education?
Labov, Singer adn Storksdieck:  In higher education, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and AAAS launched an effort to examine biology education, especially at the introductory level, which resulted in a symposium in 2009 in Washington, D.C. that was attended by more than 500 people and resulted in a major report in 2011 (Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education).  

In 2012 a committee of the President's Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report that focused on uneven quality in introductory college courses as a major obstacle to exciting students about STEM subjects and keeping them on a pathway to earning STEM degrees.  A 2012 consensus report by the National Research Council on Discipline-based Education Research provides a synthesis of the evidence for effective teaching practice and its implementation, with recommendations for improving undergraduate science and engineering education targeted to current and future faculty, university administrators, and disciplinary societies.

All of these efforts point to a general consensus about what constitutes excellence in teaching science, math, or engineering across K-14. These ideas include measurement of student competencies in STEM that go beyond the acquisition and understanding of content and concepts. They also underscore the emerging research on human cognition that yields powerful insights for improving STEM education, unequivocally demonstrating that most students in the U.S. cannot learn science, math or engineering effectively without engaging in relevant disciplinary practices, i.e., learning by doing. 

AAASMC:  What programs have supplied critical support for these transitional efforts?
Labov, Singer adn Storksdieck: NSF is providing financial and intellectual support at the undergraduate level through various programs: Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES)Widening Implementation and Demonstration of Evidence-based Reforms (WIDER), and especially the Math/Science Partnerships, which catalyze connections between K-12 and higher education.  Many programs in NSF's Division of Research on Learning also fund research on K-12 STEM learning.  Interestingly, federal agencies are beginning to cooperate with one another and private foundations to tackle some of these issues. For instance, the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education initiative (PULSE), a collaboration among NSF, NIH, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), is engaging biology department chairs to catalyze meaningful and sustainable programs at their home institutions and to share their experiences with the larger community. 

AAASMC:  So what are your expectations for the symposium at the AAAS Annual Meeting?
Labov, Singer adn Storksdieck:  The aforementioned reports offer solid evidence that current practices in undergraduate science education could be improved by incorporating results from learning and education research into pedagogical practice in all STEM disciplines. The experts on the panel will help symposium participants understand both the findings and implications of those findings, including the real and perceived barriers for improving practice. Presentations and a discussion with the panel will be followed by small discussion groups that will consider factors that impede change based on the key issues presented. The groups will then extract key points from their discussions and report out about the issues they identified. The session will end with comments from discussants who will:  1) link the research base to what has been recommended, and 2) embed the discussion into a broader institutional context, including policy levers and the role of funding in scaling up promising practices.

As organizers, we expect the combination of presentations, panel discussions, and small group deliberations to enrich participants with perspectives on current efforts that demonstrate how individual faculty can contribute through their own courses, as well as the collective roles of the organizations to which they belong—their departments, institutions, and disciplinary and professional societies. 

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