Undergraduate Educators Urge Broader Embrace of Innovation

Second Life for learning. Penn State educators are using Second Life’s virtual campus to teach lessons in online security. But can such innovative efforts be extended beyond the university?
[Credit: Angsana Techatassanasoontorn/College of Information Sciences and Technology, Pennsylvania State University]

Lagging science scores among incoming undergraduates have created new teaching challenges, experts gathered last month in Washington, D.C., said, sharpening the need to identify effective education strategies.

Innovative teaching is making headway on some campuses, but participants at the 2011 Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (TUES) conference said these approaches must be more widely used.

Speakers at the meeting organized by the U.S. National Science Foundation and AAAS noted that promising projects in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education are often isolated successes.

“If we want to inspire learning at all levels” of students, said Niccole Villa Cerveny, a geographer at Mesa Community College in Arizona, “we really need to come up with better ways to disseminate what’s created out of each one of these projects.”

Undergraduate educators are reshaping their lessons as some students arrive unprepared for college-level classes. In January, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a report showing that only 21% of U.S. high school seniors were “proficient” in grade-level science knowledge. This month, a report in New York state showed that fewer than half of the state’s high school graduates are ready for college or skilled jobs in the workforce.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s FY 2012 budget, released 14 February, includes funding for 100,000 new STEM teachers. Some speakers at the TUES conference said these teachers will receive their first critical exposure to the sciences as undergraduates.

“The performance from K-12 students is connected to the capability of their teachers,” said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. “But the development of this capability is a responsibility that begins in our colleges and universities.”

The National Science Foundation’s TUES program (formerly the Course Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement program) has distributed grants to colleges and universities since 1999 to encourage education innovation. At the 26 to 28 January conference, more than 500 participants shared innovative projects such as home labs for astronomy and optics students, online calculus tutors, and classes in the virtual world Second Life to teach undergraduates about online security. Last year, AAAS published a report highlighting 17 innovative projects under way across the country (see www.aaas.org/go/ccli09).

This year’s meeting focused on the challenge of implementing these programs more broadly. “We want to seriously address what it will take to bring about a cultural shift to student-centered instruction,” said Linda L. Slakey, director of NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

Phoebe Stubblefield, director of the Forensic Science Program at the University of North Dakota, said many faculty at her university are discouraged from using innovative methods because “the typical academic culture values research productivity over teaching and learning.”

Educators must move “away from this notion of ‘I published, therefore I disseminated,’ because publications reach a very small scientific community,” Cerveny said. Teaching at the pre-college level suffers as a result, since “much of what we do is not available to K-12 teachers.”

Sparse support for science teaching could leave many ill prepared to join the 21st-century workforce, said Carl E. Wieman, a former U.S. professor of the year and now associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He urged educators to evaluate new programs with an eye toward discouraging rote memorization and encouraging students to think like scientists.