University Educators Urge Innovative Science Teaching to Sharpen Incoming Students’ Skills

At the start of 2011, the nation’s attention was focused on the plight of science education. Results of the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress released in January showed that very few K-12 students have the advanced skills that could lead to careers in science and technology. And U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address and his proposed fiscal year 2012 budget emphasized the need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education to drive the economy of the future.

Poor science scores and a faltering economy are sharpening the need to improve undergraduate education, said speakers at the 2011 Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and AAAS.

Although much of the national attention has been focused on pre-college students, “the performance from K-12 students is connected to the capability of their teachers,” said Shirley M. Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. “The development of this capability is a responsibility that begins in our colleges and universities.”

The conference, held 26-28 January in Washington, D.C., brought together more than 500 college and university faculty administrators and professional society staff from a National Science Foundation initiative to transform science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at the undergraduate level.

In 1999, the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education began distributing grants to colleges and universities under the Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program; the grants were initiated to encourage awardees to implement innovative educational strategies that would have demonstrable impacts on student learning. In fiscal year 2010, NSF provided approximately $48.8 million for the program—now renamed Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, or TUES—supporting 274 new initiatives on 188 different campuses around the country.

Shirley M. Malcom

Faculty and staff in the program have developed a wide array of multidisciplinary projects, including using the virtual world of Second Life to help students obtain the appropriate skills to protect themselves against key cybersecurity threats; modeling a classroom like a crime lab to teach students forensic science; and creating home labs for astronomy and optics students. Last year, AAAS published a report highlighting 17 innovative projects underway across the country.

But promising new materials and practices are just one ingredient in determining the long-term impact of TUES, said Myles G. Boylan, who directs the program for NSF. Other major challenges, he said, include developing effective means for measuring the impact of these innovative techniques on students; building up dissemination practices that both raise awareness and provide for professional development; and scaling up the implementation of these new learning methods and resources within and across institutions.

Miles G. Boylan

Braving severe weather that wreaked havoc on travel, conference participants met in small groups and in poster sessions. Their discussions centered on the ways in which innovative teaching techniques and approaches can be evaluated and disseminated so that they can truly transform undergraduate education, prepare adults for the jobs of the future, and help citizens become knowledgeable about how science relates to their lives and communities.

Niccole Villa Cerveny, a member of the Geography Faculty at Mesa Community College, in Mesa, Arizona, led a session that focused on dissemination of the TUES program to K-12 teachers. Cerveny said that the group quickly realized that the typical means of dissemination within the scientific community—publishing in scholarly journals—is not an effective way to reach K-12 teachers.

“One of the biggest things that we need to do is move from this notion of ‘I published, therefore I disseminated,’” Cerveny said. “Publications reach a very small scientific community and if we want to inspire learning at all levels, we really need to come up with better ways to disseminate what’s created out of each one of these funded projects.”

Phoebe Stubblefield, director of the forensic science program and the human identification laboratory at the University of North Dakota, commented on institutional barriers to change, which she said make it difficult for her students to get the full benefit of the changes she is making to her program.

Phoebe Stubblefield

She also noted that many faculty members at her university are discouraged from using innovative methods because the typical academic culture values research productivity over teaching and learning. “It can be quite harmful to an untenured faculty person’s career to spend any time developing innovative teaching techniques,” she said. “Department chairs and deans need to be encouraged or empowered to develop incentives or protections that would encourage faculty to be innovative teachers.”

Carl E. Wieman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, urged meeting participants to think differently when creating assessments for their programs, to ensure outcomes that prepare students for the workforce and for the science-related decisions that they will need to make about their lives and their communities.

Carl E. Wieman

One important educational goal, Weiman said, is for students to “think like a scientist” and focus on developing expertise rather than memorizing and regurgitating facts. Assessment methods should include open-ended survey questions that probe student knowledge, he suggested, along with multiple choice tests where the answer choices reflect actual student thinking.

Malcom praised Wieman for speaking with passion about the new expectations that are required if the nation is going to be able to reach its goals for STEM education. She recalled how students she met when she was in college often selected majors where they were required to take the least amount of science and mathematics.

“And all too often this major was elementary education! This is self-defeating with regard to attaining our goal to support STEM learning,” Malcom said. “Complacency will not work in addressing today’s challenges and in today’s economy.”


Read AAAS’ 2009 report on the TUES program, “New Challenges, New Strategies: Building Excellence in Undergraduate STEM Education.”

Learn more about the NSF’s TUES/CCLI program.