Experts Seek to Boost Knowledge and Allies for Teaching STEM


Multidisciplinary science organizations are working together to devise a plan for improving undergraduate STEM programs, calling for more collaboration across disciplines.industrieblick/Adobe Stock

If you ever dropped differently-sized objects to see if one fell faster as part of your physics class, or watched a stalk of celery turn colors when placed in dye instead of listening to a lecture on capillary action, you have benefited from research into how students learn and understand science.

Educational best practices that apply to all the fields of science recognize common observations, such as knowing that students tend to learn more from hands-on activities than a lecture. Yet, much more research is needed to frame more effective approaches to teaching science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) topics with their complex and sometimes interlocking concepts.

Discipline-based education research, however, has traditionally stayed in its respective STEM field, with separate journals, conferences and research topics and largely eschewed collaborative approaches that could better integrate teaching in the STEM fields.

Now, a small group of researchers and organizations including AAAS and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), are trying to help break the knowledge their respective communities have free from such constraints. They aim to increase collaborations across disciplines by organizing a community of discipline-based education research (DBER) practitioners who want to improve undergraduate education across the STEM fields.

About two dozen leaders in this area of STEM education research met 18-19 November in Washington, D.C. to discuss the potential goals and benefits of a cross-disciplinary community that they are calling the STEM DBER Alliance. It would supplement and enhance existing DBER group activities. The founders are working on a white paper and have plans to share their vision and solicit input more widely at other scientific and education meetings, including at the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston in February.

The nascent effort came about after several researchers, including Scott Franklin, a physics professor and director of a STEM education center at Rochester Institute of Technology, Charles Henderson, a physics professor at Western Michigan University, and Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, discussed forming a national interdisciplinary group at the public and land-grant universities’ group workshop in June.

“It was quite clear that we needed an umbrella that was going to help us really understand how we could contribute to each other’s understanding,” Malcom said. “We said ‘Maybe we’re smarter together.’”

Franklin said he and Henderson have seen the benefits of cross-discipline discussions at their own institutions and been interested in expanding it nationally. “We’ve seen firsthand the discussions that result from the very different experiences and backgrounds, and how these have supported research in unexpected directions,” Franklin said. He said the STEM DBER Alliance will bring him into contact with more researchers who can contribute ideas and opportunities for collaboration, and help the group tackle difficult issues, such as diversity, inclusion and broadening participation.

Such collaborations could greatly help improve student retention and diversity in STEM fields, Malcom said. If a college student studying engineering is having trouble with the required mathematics, for example, it is not just a problem with how the engineering is taught, but rather how the math is taught, Malcom said. Engineering faculty could benefit greatly from learning how math educators teach those concepts and how students learn mathematical concepts.

Sciences that deal with some of the same basic concepts could also begin to make those connections to help students better grasp fundamental principles. For example, students learn about energy in physics and biology, and whether the examples deal with colliding cars or sugar stored in plants, “it’s still energy,” said Susan Rundell Singer, lead editor of a 2012 National Academies of Science report on DBER.

Singer combined biology DBER research with research on the developmental biology of flowering in plants in her 30 years as a professor at Carleton College before recently becoming vice president for academic affairs and provost at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

This kind of interdisciplinary teaching and education research is essential in preparing learners to address global challenges,, Singer said. “We need systems thinkers in engineering, biology, and chemistry to address climate change,” she said. “If we aren’t talking to each other and figuring out how these shared concepts are understood, then our students lose, and ultimately, our nation loses.”

Efforts to improve science and mathematics education began in the early 1900s, when professors realized that traditional ways of teaching concepts to undergraduates could be improved. DBER had a resurgence in the 1960s post-Sputnik push to increase the number of STEM graduates. However, it was not until the 1990s that discipline-based education began to grow into an active research field in most STEM disciplines, with physics education research taking the lead.. It is now solidly established in each STEM field, with more faculty members being added each year.

Singer hopes the cross-disciplinary community will “get people out of their STEM silos and talking with fields including economics and cultural anthropology, social psychology — not just to borrow their methodologies, but to think in new ways together.”

[Associated image: Robert Kneschke /Adobe Stock]