Innovative Tools—And Long-Term Funding—Needed to Transform Undergraduate Science Education

Nathan Klingbeil and his colleagues at Wright State University have found a way to double the graduation rate of engineering students. The key element is modifying how and when calculus is taught, so that it is not a barrier to learning but is in sync with how budding engineers solve problems.

“Mathematicians have a unique ability to really understand things in an abstract way and appreciate the elegance of math,” he said. “The problem is the average person has no idea what they are talking about.” Most students, particularly engineers, are oriented towards the physical world. “That is what they can wrap their arms around.”

Klingbeil sees the calculus prerequisite as a perennial bottleneck to training engineers. A decade ago at Wright State University, where he is senior associate dean and professor of mechanical and materials engineering, it was common for 300 freshmen to declare an engineering or computer sciences major “but only about 40% of them ever got past freshman calculus” and perhaps a hundred eventually matriculated with those degrees.

Blaming the math department isn’t the solution, he said. “Engineers have to start looking in the mirror and say, ‘What is wrong with our What is wrong with the way we structure it?”

Don Millard

Don Millard

Wright State’s decade-long solution was the crown jewel of innovation success stories that more than 500 investigators shared at the biennial Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES) conference, held 23-25 January in Washington, D.C. AAAS Education and Human Resources co-sponsored the meeting with the U.S. National Science Foundation, which funds much of the research undertaken by the participating investigators.

The conference is a way to “celebrate all of the wonderful things that are going on” with TUES programs, said Don L. Millard at the opening plenary session. He directs the NSF program, which last year funded 988 active awards to colleges and universities.

Katherine Perkins (All photos by Bob Roehr)

Katherine Perkins
(All photos by Bob Roehr)

The audience sat rapt as Klingbeil explained how Wright State’s National Model for Engineering Mathematics Education ameliorated the calculus bottleneck for engineering students, by aligning teaching practices with the way engineering students think and learn.

Klingbeil described the program as “application driven, just-in-time engineering math instruction” taught by engineering professors. “We are trying to introduce the salient topics that you will actually use” in the engineering classroom, he said, “covering the stuff by example. We don’t develop the theory behind it, we just apply it.”

Nathan Klingbeil

Nathan Klingbeil

“Students really start to understand the power of calculus when you introduce it to them within the context of the application,” Klingbeil said. Later, after they have become comfortable with the applications—“they have got the forest before they are trying to learn the trees”—they are fed back into the mathematics program curriculum.

“At that point I would like the faculty member, with the Ph.D. in math who can think abstractly, I’d like them to put a little abstractness on my engineers so that they are in a better position to be recruited to research programs and graduate programs where, if you can think abstractly it is going to help them out.”

The program received initial funding in 2003 “and we finally have good longitudinal data,” Klingbeil said. “If you want to make transformative change to education, it takes eight years before you get graduation rates for three classes of kids.”

The benefits of long-term funding do not accrue in a linear fashion, but rather grow non-linearly over time, said Katherine Perkins. The associate professor of physics directs the PhET Interactive Simulations Project and Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“We had 22,000 uses per year at the end of our first grant in 2004 and we thought that was really great,” she said. “But now we have over 35 million uses. You can see how that extended funding allowed us to bring the project to scale.”

Over its 10 years, the PhET project was able to leverage the interactions between its efforts in foundational research, applied research, and project development to scale not only the number of PhET simulations (now at 125), but also knowledge of effective simulation design and use. PhET simulations help teach basic principles of physics and chemistry—from grade school through college.

Pratibha Varma-Nelson

Pratibha Varma-Nelson

Leaders of other TUES-funded projects represented at the conference shared lessons learned from their efforts to transform undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

Engineering Projects in the Community Service (EPICS) started in 1995 at Purdue University and is run by engineering education professor William Oakes. EPICS is a unique program in which teams of undergraduates design, build, and deploy real systems to solve engineering-based problems for local community organizations. More than 3000 students have participated in the program, which operates in 21 U.S. college and university campuses, over 50 high schools, and 30 sites abroad.

William David Burns

William David Burns

The National Center for Science and Civic Engagement is another long-time NSF grantee with a mission to inspire, support, and disseminate campus-based science education reform strategies for non-STEM majors. “We are looking for what ordinary citizens ought to know about science, engineering, technology and mathematics…[using] the complex narratives of critical civic questions such as climate change,” said executive director William David Burns. He also serves as the principal investigator of the SENCER project, which explores similar links between science and civic engagement.

Bruce Alberts

Bruce Alberts

“It is really about citizenship and democracy, an engagement with the most complex questions of our day,” Burns explained. “The intellectual capital of our project resides in the participants.” This distributed leadership approach, he said, has afforded the SENCER team the flexibility to adapt to changing developments and opportunities.

Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL), a teaching strategy that uses students who have done well in undergraduate STEM courses as peer leaders, has become widely adopted at many colleges and universities. While the variable elements of each team experience make each situation unique, some broad conclusions can be drawn from those experiences, said Pratibha Varma-Nelson, professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

William Oakes

William Oakes

All students benefit from the process, she said, and “good students benefit just as much as the others do.” Students who serve as peer leaders have added benefits because facilitating collaborative problem solving helps them learn the content better and develops their leadership skills. Students who are recruited to serve as peer leaders must be trained for their roles.

“Role models are very important. Students need to see other students like themselves succeed. If you only see one kind of student succeeding, you don’t believe you can succeed,” said Varma-Nelson.

Students are invaluable in partnerships with faculty to improve educational practice. They need to be involved with the process from its inception, she said. They are the best resource for understanding what teaching and learning strategies work best for members of their peer group.

“Paying attention to student culture is as important as any disciplinary cultures. We need to make room for students to influence the work,” added Burns. “I wouldn’t get stuck with first figuring out what culture is, I would try to get people working on a problem and then see where culture impedes progress, and what we can try to do to try to understand it.”

Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts reviewed how the journal has taken on new activities in science education through publications, contests, and competitions such as the current Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

He noted that nine of the winners of the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education contest were NSF TUES grant recipients, including “On the Cutting Edge,” a series of professional development workshops for geosciences faculty developed by The Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College.

“We are trying to make science education more similar to how science is conducted,” Alberts said, “building upon the best, and making continuous improvement.”

Learn more about the 2013 TUES conference.

Learn more about the NSF’s TUES/CCLI program.