AAAS Report Highlights Promising Innovation for Undergraduate STEM Education

William Oakes can’t hide the excitement in his voice when he talks about EPICS, the service-learning program he directs at Purdue University. The program—Engineering Projects in Community Service—partners undergraduate students with local organizations to work on engineering and design projects—creating software for schools, for example, or designing a “green” building for a nonprofit. Students work in teams and they’re responsible for maintaining not just the project budget, but the relationship with their community partners.

They receive academic credit for their work, and the partner organizations save some money. But according to Oakes, the students get more out of the program than a grade on their transcript. “They get to see how their majors have an impact on people’s lives,” he says. “They are also getting a really strong education in their discipline.”

EPICS is part of a National Science Foundation program called Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The program—TUES for short—has one central goal: Develop the most effective undergraduate science and engineering education through research-based innovations in curriculum materials, teaching strategies, faculty development, and evaluation and assessment. In 2009, the NSF provided $67.5 million dollars to fund 262 new initiatives, bringing the total up to 950 active projects nationwide.

Community service. A Purdue engineering student works on her project for the EPICS program. The programs assigns students to work in teams to complete engineering projects for schools and nonprofits in their local community.

[Photo © and courtesy of the EPICS program]

AAAS kicked off the new school year this month by sending its latest report to Congress on the NSF TUES project. In the report—“New Challenges, New Strategies: Building Excellence in Undergraduate STEM Education”—AAAS highlighted 17 projects that represent cutting-edge creativity in undergraduate STEM education nationwide.

Shirley Malcom, the director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, says that strengthening undergraduate STEM education is critical because college is the last time many people will take a STEM course. She says it is important that students enter the workforce with a quality STEM education, no matter their major.

“We’re looking at things that you can hold up and say, ‘Yes there are things that we can do to provide a better science experience for people in their undergraduate years’,” she says. “We have to think: What are they going to walk away with as the headline of science in their lives as they go on to be journalists or judges or whatever they want to be?”

Ultimately, Malcom says, the TUES program is a response to national concerns about training skilled STEM professionals and producing citizens who are knowledgeable about STEM and how it relates to their lives. And it seeks to build on the community of U.S. faculty members who already are working hard to improve science-related education.

Shirley MalcomShirley Malcom

Russell Pimmel, the lead program director of TUES at NSF, says that the goal of the program is to fund new, “transformative” approaches for teaching STEM topics that are both effective and “transportable.” He says that the program has a progressive three-step funding system which can help carry a project from the testing phase at a single institution up to nationwide dissemination.

TUES was formerly known as the Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program. AAAS hosted the 2008 conference that served as the foundation of the “New Challenges, New Strategies” report.

At Syracuse University, Associate Professor Kevin Du didn’t necessarily have nationwide dissemination in mind when he started his TUES project. All he wanted to do was give his engineering students a better education in computer security.

“When I was a student, I learned a lot of computer security theory,” says Du. “So mentally I knew how a [computer] attack works, but it’s really different when you actually do it.”

Global impact. Syracuse University computer science Professor Kevin Du instructs his students during one of his computer security labs. Du designed a collection of unique hands-on labs that help students learn about computer security, and now they're in demand from other school worldwide.

[Photo © and courtesy of Syracuse University]

Du designed security labs that give students hands-on experience not just building computer security systems, but hacking into them as well. But don’t worry—Du says he designed his labs so that his students could work in a contained environment without affecting outside computers. With the explosion in internet software, Du says that basic computer security skills are essential for many professions in the 21st century. So even though his labs were designed for engineering students, now the course is expanding to include non-engineering majors as well. Du is proud to say that 20 other institutions are using his labs in their own computer security courses and 30 more have put in requests for instructional materials, with some requests coming from as far away as China.

Many TUES projects are focused on new ways to teach STEM material, but others are seeking to solve age-old problems in STEM education. For example, Julia Baker, a chemistry professor at Columbia College, found that merely having access to research-grade instruments changed her students’ chemistry experience. Using funds from an exploratory TUES grant, the college bought a nuclear magnetic resonance instrument. Baker says that 73% of students reported that they enjoyed labs that incorporated the instrument. Also, she says, the machine makes a huge difference for students who want to pursue careers in science.

“Science is so instrument-heavy now,” Baker says, “It gives them a lot of confidence when they go to apply for jobs.”

Devon Cancilla at Western Washington University took a different approach to the instrument access problem. With the power of the Internet, Cancilla and his team built a web-based remote laboratory that connects students to scientific instruments all across the country. According to Cancilla, expensive instruments at universities are idle roughly 70% of the time. So their system, called the Integrated Laboratory Network, allows students to operate instruments remotely through a computer 24/7. Cancilla says that making instruments accessible through cyberspace not only gives more students access to state-of-the-art instruments, but it also gives more students the chance to use the instrument on their own.

“The way we have traditionally trained students is to march them by an instrument in small groups and some graduate student or technician gives a demonstration,” says Cancilla. “Very rarely do students have the opportunity to use the instruments. Here, it’s available for them 24 hours a day.”

Projects funded by the NSF TUES program not only focus on teaching strategies, but also address faculty development, student assessment, and basic research on STEM education. One project at Michigan State University is testing whether students perform better in introductory biology courses if they use “clickers” to respond to questions in the classroom. Another group holds regular workshops for chemistry faculty to learn about current topics in chemistry like forensics or the chemistry of art. There is also a group at Tennessee Tech University that is developing an assessment tool called the Critical Achievement Test, which is designed to test student’s critical thinking skills for solving real-world STEM problems.

AAAS and NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education are hosting a conference for TUES/CCLI principal investigators from 26-28 January 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Malcom says that AAAS and NSF will continue to work together, along with other partners, to improve and expand the TUES program. AAAS is committed to improving STEM education at every level, she says, including efforts to provide high-quality resources for undergraduates.

Links

Read the full report, “New Challenges, New Strategies: Building Excellence in Undergraduate STEM Education”

Search state-by-state for innovative projects funded by the National Science Foundation’s TUES program.

Learn more about TUES.