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Report Proposes Broad Changes to Undergraduate STEM Education

Despite decades of research on successful teaching practices in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), there has been disappointingly little incorporation of proven teaching methods in undergraduate classrooms, a new report says.

The Coalition for Reform of Undergraduate STEM Education, which includes staff members from AAAS and other leading academic and research organizations, says that faculty members, campus leaders, and funding organizations must "work together to make effective practice the norm rather than the exception."

The need for systemic reform is apparent and can no longer wait, the report says.  Less than 40 percent of the students who enter college with the intention of majoring in a STEM field complete a degree in one of those fields. Among the reasons, according to a recent report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, are "uninspiring" introductory courses and an unwelcoming atmosphere from faculty.

Meanwhile, baby boomers — who hold nearly a quarter of STEM jobs requiring a bachelor's degree or higher — are starting to retire, and the number of jobs in STEM fields is projected to grow 26 percent by 2020. The United States has relied on foreign nationals in the past to meet the demand for STEM jobs, but the new report notes that the global market is shifting so that China, India, and other countries are now able to compete on wages to attract STEM talent.

The recommendations in the report, "Achieving Systemic Change: A Sourcebook for Advancing and Funding Undergraduate STEM Education," are the result of a two-day workshop in June 2013 at AAAS that was organized by the coalition. In addition to AAAS, coalition members include staff from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the National Research Council.

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News, November 5, 2014 Shirley Malcom
Shirley Malcom | AAAS

"Evidence is growing every day on how active engagement by faculty in the teaching and learning process makes a difference to student success in the classroom, especially for students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds," said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources programs at AAAS. That success, she said, can make the difference in whether a student stays in a STEM field. It is naïve, she said, to think that student progress in the classroom alone, however, will be enough to transform STEM outcomes. "Systems within institutions must support this transformation," Malcom said.

While noting recent reports that "have called into question the so-called U.S. 'STEM crisis,'" the new report says the need for improved STEM education goes beyond just the number of STEM majors and STEM jobs.

At risk also is "a STEM-literate society and STEM-competent workers in a variety of fields," the reports says. Improved STEM education will serve all students, regardless of major, since some coursework in science-related fields typically is required for graduation, it says. And even when students with STEM degrees go into non-STEM jobs, the U.S. Department of Commerce has found that they earn 12 percent more than colleagues without STEM degrees.

"Rhetoric about valuing teaching is not sufficient when it is not reflected in institutional policies and practices," the new report says. It adds, "While progress has been made in recognizing scholarly research on pedagogy, the intellectual work of teaching itself must be rewarded."

The report calls for funding agencies to support faculty development programs, including preparation of doctoral students and post-docs to be effective teachers. It notes barriers to better undergraduate instruction, including large class sizes, limitations on physical teaching space, lack of time, and lack of access to campus resources for non-tenure-track faculty. It urges institutions to provide easily modifiable teaching materials, making sure faculty members understand not only what works but why it works.

"Lasting change will require a sustained effort with supporting structures and expertise on campus or in easily accessed networks," the report says. Among the suggestions for schools:

  • Identify and support academic departments that are doing an exemplary teaching job.
  • Cultivate faculty leadership skills via dedicated leadership institutes.
  • Organize faculty learning communities to provide ongoing support for faculty members as they work to improve their teaching.
  • Support mid-career and senior faculty as champions of better teaching practices and seasoned agents of change.

The report also stresses the importance of the first two years of coursework for the retention and recruitment of students in STEM fields.  "Another well-established contributor to student success is participation in authentic research experiences," the report notes.

There also is a continuing need for strong, evidence-based confirmation that STEM teaching practices are working. "In order to transform STEM education, and to ensure that initiatives are making progress, we need robust ways to determine whether there is alignment between what we know about how students learn and what they experience," the report said. "The quality of evidence presented to support claims of the success or failure of a given educational intervention is often inconsistent. In a recent literature review of articles on curricular approaches in STEM education, only 21 percent presented strong evidence, while 28 percent offered adequate evidence, 39 percent poor evidence, and 12 percent no evidence."

The report recommends that schools distribute data on student success, establish benchmarks to be measured across programs, and hold departments accountable for performance. And institutions and funding organizations must be in it for the long haul.

"While grant funding for STEM education projects is typically three to five years in duration, impacts of funding may not be felt for five to ten years," the report says. "Funding levels must be sufficient to firmly catalyze change, and must require a plan for sustaining the work after the funding period."

The coalition's work is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. The principal organizer of the coalition is Linda Slakey, senior adviser for the Association of American Universities and a senior fellow of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The sourcebook was edited by Catherine L. Fry.

[Photo credit for teaser image associated with this story: Flickr/Dave Thomas]