New AAAS Resources Support Undergraduate STEM Education Reform

A widely attended webinar series and a new book encourage research-based insights into how to improve undergraduate STEM education.

When the White House announced its plan last spring to reorganize and consolidate federal education programs, it raised concerns about the impact on efforts to better prepare undergraduate students for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers that are critical to solving the problems of the 21st century. Scientists and educators investigating research-based approaches to undergraduate STEM learning were further nonplussed when the National Science Foundation announced in November that it would be folding three of its related funding programs into one.

At least one positive outcome has emerged, however, and a widely attended AAAS webinar series has been providing advice and encouragement for how to take advantage. The new NSF program, called Improving Undergraduate STEM Education ( IUSE), supports research-based approaches to understanding STEM learning, as well as broadening participation of individuals and institutions in STEM fields and other goals. It is also more open-ended than its predecessors and some other comparable programs. Without restrictions on factors such as budget, project duration, and the number of proposals allowed, applicants should approach their projects with greater flexibility and creative freedom, according to the webinars' presenters.   

AAAS Education and Human Resources, Louisiana State University and Higher Education Services have jointly organized two webinar series to prepare applicants for the 4 February proposal target date. The initial series took place in December and drew 1,043 participants from 543 colleges and universities, professional societies, and education organizations. A follow-up series, held 6-17 January, went into further depth, on topics such as defining project goals, objectives, and evaluation questions, addressing NSF's broader impacts expectations, and designing a project for impact and transportability.

"The webinars, as well as some of the conferences, workshops and publications that we produce, are all part of our ongoing effort to provide services and resources for people who are developing and implementing undergraduate STEM education programs. AAAS has been working with the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education since 2004, and we have a large community of consumers now," said EHR deputy director Yolanda George.

A second project recently deployed by EHR addresses another facet of improving undergraduate STEM education: the need for researchers, administrator sand faculty to have a common language for discussing and evaluating important aspects of teaching. For example, different instructors may claim to use the same general methods but their students' learning outcomes may vary widely. Likewise, even though STEM faculty commonly report using hands-on learning techniques in their classrooms, sometimes these claims are not borne out through follow-up questioning, according to a new book published by AAAS with funding from the NSF, called Describing and Measuring STEM Teaching Practices.

The book is the result of a AAAS/NSF meeting that drew participants from nearly 50 institutions to identify tools and techniques that can be used in describing teaching practices. It discusses five techniques that individuals or organizations can use to measure STEM teaching: faculty and student surveys, interviews, classroom observations and teaching portfolios. The best descriptions of STEM teaching typically involve the use of multiple techniques, the book concludes.