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To Transform Undergraduate STEM Education, Look to Evidence-Based Teaching Practices, Experts Say


Shirley Malcom, AAAS Education and Human Resources director [AAAS/Kat Zambon]

As a member of the board of regents at Morgan State University and a trustee at the California Institute of Technology, Shirley Malcom often sits on stage during commencement ceremonies while students walk to receive their diplomas. "At Morgan, I watched shoes. The shoes were fabulous," said Malcom, AAAS Education and Human Resources director. "But at Caltech, with a smaller class, I took the opportunity to look at the people who were crossing the stage and the particular fields that they were in."

This year, Malcom was surprised to see that the 40 students graduating with degrees in mechanical engineering included 17 women, seven international students including two African students, and eight U.S. under-represented minorities. "Now, that is not a typical M.E. class at all," Malcom said. "So of course, the first thing I want to know is, what happened?"

Experts discussed success stories like these and the factors holding many other colleges and universities back from making similar gains at "Supporting Systemic Change in STEM Higher Education," a workshop held at AAAS 17-19 June. More than 50 participants from universities, non-profit foundations and government attended the workshop, which was funded by the Sloan Foundation and the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement. The workshop addressed higher education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and was organized by a coalition of national education organizations including AAAS, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, and the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

One of the primary themes that emerged was the importance of evidence-based teaching approaches, which apply recent cognitive science research on how people learn. Evidence-based teaching curricula are highly effective and frequently make use of experiments, demonstration and discussion.

Why STEM Education Needs a Makeover


Martin Storksdieck [AAAS/Kat Zambon]

The lack of diversity among STEM professionals was a key concern. "This country is getting increasingly more diverse and we're not really tapping into the diversity of the potential learners and future professional class later on that would go into STEM," said Martin Storksdieck, director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council.

Supportive leadership, a deliberate effort to improve student experiences, access to diverse role models, committed faculty and incorporation of good instructional models led to the positive changes in the mechanical engineering department at Caltech, Malcom explained. Taking a systemic approach was also a major part of their success.

"There was an opportunity to actually see things happen in real time, and lo and behold, as predicted, we are now seeing the graduating classes change as well," Malcom said.

Many other higher-education institutions have a long way to go, participants agreed. A report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found that students frequently drop out of STEM majors because their classes are uninspiring, Storksdieck said. "And then there's basically an atmosphere within many of these departments and the faculty that is not very welcoming, translating to ‘Look around, right, left, you know, one of you'" won't earn a passing grade, he said. "It's this kind of up-man-ship and ‘how tough we are' that's not very welcoming indeed."

Using Data to Drive Progress

There are some uncertainties about comparisons of degree completion data from STEM and non-STEM fields, said Michael Teitelbaum, Wertheim Fellow at Harvard Law School and senior advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Despite the murky nature of the available data, "I still think that raising retention in STEM undergraduate education is highly doable, highly leveraged, something we should focus our attention on in a very active way, even if it turns out that [retention] is no lower than in other disciplines," he said. "Increasing retention and completion rates offers the biggest payoff, if you will, in terms of active investment of resources and energy."


Michael Teitelbaum [AAAS/Kat Zambon]

Advancing evidence-based teaching may make STEM students less likely to drop out, the PCAST report suggests. "It's the idea of improving the quality of the education experience. And this doesn't mean make it fun, it means make it more effective so people can have a positive experience," said Storksdieck.

Workshop participants discussed the role that technology can play in the process of transforming undergraduate STEM education. "We want to learn what products we want to buy, we want to learn what movies we might want to see," said Michael Tanner, vice president and chief academic officer at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. "There are now algorithms that help us do that, give us good advice as to what we might want to watch next. This same kind of technology is going to be moving rapidly into education."

Personalized learning systems learn "about the student, model what the student knows and then provide a learning experience that's appropriate for that student at that moment" rather than forcing the student to wade through lots of information, Tanner explained. While such systems are still in their infancy they may have a significant impact in the future.

"If it becomes commonplace, which I think it will, it will change the way teachers teach," Tanner said. "It's not just the sage on the stage going to the guide on the side. It's rethinking the human aspects of what a teacher does."

Some educators are intimidated by the thought that technology might redefine the role of teachers in the classroom. Tanner suggested that participants "think of it as the new form of textbook, not a new form of teacher," he said. "It's not computer-delivered instruction, it's computer-assisted learning."

Will Teachers Buy in?

Felicia Keesing, professor of biology at Bard College, encouraged workshop participants to embrace the challenges posed by technology as opportunities. Educators should ask themselves what makes face-to-face learning and being in a learning institution different from experiences that could occur in the online world. "And if we can't answer those questions, then that creates a catalyst for us to actually begin to develop answers or change the way that we practice," she said.

Keesing advocated that universities set specific benchmarks for improvement, such as having all faculty in five years or 10 years complete a course in evidence-based teaching. Faculty members might be most receptive to this approach early in their professional development, Keesing said. "When they're in the graduate student phase or the post-doc phase, they might be most open to the idea of taking an evidence-based teaching class because they're seeing it as a way to open doors to jobs," she said.



Felicia Keesing [AAAS/Kat Zambon]

Additionally, professional societies could collaborate to offer an interdisciplinary evidence-based teaching certification, Keesing said, and having faculty who have studied evidence-based teaching could become a requirement for accreditation. As doctors are required to complete continuing medical education (CME) to keep their licenses, a model along those lines may offer something to consider for university faculty who teach, said S. James Gates, Jr., University System of Maryland Regents Professor and PCAST member.

However, Alan Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the journal Science cautioned that the term "evidence-based" didn't have a positive connotation. "The term ‘evidence-based' in social intervention has become very tarnished," he said. "Often it means mush to people." Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, concurred. "We want to be as sharp as possible. I think blurred terms are a problem," he said.

Regardless of the terminology, Gates reminded workshop participants of the stakes involved. When talking to reporters about evidence-based teaching, they comment, "'Oh, you're trying to become better teachers.' That's not the point," he said. "I'm trying to fix a threat to the American dream."

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Kat Zambon

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