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Report from the 2016 AAC&U “Transforming Undergraduate STEM Education” Conference, Pt 1

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aacu-logoReport from the 2016 AAC&U STEM Conference, AAC&U conference,“2016 Transforming Undergraduate STEM Education: Implications for 21st-Century Society”, November 3-5, Boston, MA.

By Michael Roberts (Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience)

Dana Dudle (Professor of Biology) and Michael Roberts (Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience) attended the “2016 Transforming Undergraduate STEM Education: Implications for 21st-Century Society” AAC&U conference, November 3-5, Boston, MA. The conference included a variety of sessions on inclusive pedagogy, active learning, and high-impact practices (with substantial overlap among these) to improve the quality of STEM education for all students.

This post, authored by Michael Roberts, is the first of two entries about the conference.

Feedback for “Paradigm Shifts” course model

I presented a poster on the “Paradigm Shifts” model of a team-taught, modular STEM general education course that helps students understand and engage in the scientific process in multiple contexts. I spoke to faculty members from a variety of universities who are interested in increasing connections within STEM majors, among STEM departments, and, more broadly, across curricular “frames” with Humanities and Social Sciences. Here are four examples:

  • A fellow GLCA school is interested in this type of modular approach as they redesign their Biology curriculum.
  • A community college has dramatically reorganized their science division to become more centralized, and they were intrigued by the interdisciplinary nature of the class as an exciting first foundational STEM course for their students and for faculty development across departments.
  • A few universities with very large intro courses (e.g., a military academy that requires all students to take Calculus I and then Physics I – there are 600+ students per section) were interested in ways that the modular design might be occasionally used in a required sequence in order to front-load and help motivate students by seeing the eventual purpose of their scaffolded skills (e.g., occasional in-depth Physics modules while students are learning Calculus).
  • Several folks wanted to know if we’ve been able to integrate the course with Humanities and Social Sciences. I said that those types of interdisciplinary collaborations strike me as extremely powerful but that I think such collaborations first require a broader campus conversation – within curricular areas and across curricular areas – about the learning goals we’re trying to achieve within and across our general education curriculum. In fact, many folks were impressed that we could organize an inter-STEM-disciplinary course like this in the first place, and I credited that to the Science and Math divisional discussions that Pam Propsom (Psychology) and Jackie Roberts (Chemistry and Biochemistry) initiated. Those discussions led to a relatively clear set of learning goals that provide a shared focus for the modules, and the divisional discussions may have also helped faculty members see common ground and potential connections for interdisciplinary courses.

Keynote speakers

Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist known for his active learning pedagogy, was the opening night keynote speaker. He emphasized that information transfer is incredibly easy, but knowledge transfer is difficult and requires reconstruction in the mind of the learner. Mazur cited a study that shows students are twice as likely to stay in STEM disciplines if at least one of their STEM classes was interactive. This, of course, led into examples of his active learning practices, and he led the audience through a terrific example (a short lecture on “thermal expansion” followed by a challenging question that was avidly discussed at each table) before highlighting 4 relevant elements:

  1. Each person committed to an answer.
  2. Each person externalized her or his answer (in this case, by showing a certain number of fingers).
  3. The discussions rapidly moved from answers to the reasoning behind those answers.
  4. Learners became emotionally invested in their answers.

I sometimes use this approach in my classes (again, inspired by pedagogical discussions within the science and math division at DePauw), but I was nonetheless struck by the quality of Mazur’s question choice and how well it created genuine investment in an audience of several hundred.

Tyrone Hayes was the keynote speaker on the last conference day. He gave a fabulous talk, (spanning his childhood interest in frogs, to his adjustment as an African-American student and budding scientist at Harvard, to his discoveries of a major herbicide’s “chemical castration” effects on frogs and other animals, including humans, to the chemical company’s attempts to hound and discredit him, to his increasing involvement in environmental justice). He was profiled in a New Yorker article in 2014, “A Valuable Reputation,” and DePauw would greatly benefit from attracting him for an Ubben lecture. At a minimum, his work and life story would connect with multiple science departments, Environmental Fellows, Sustainability Fellows, Prindle Institute, ongoing campus conversations on inclusiveness, etc.

Inclusiveness and active learning pedagogy

I attended a particularly good workshop “Becoming HIP: Embedding High-Impact Practices in Science Courses to Increase Equity, Inclusion, and ELOs”) on the last morning of the conference. It began with a discussion of roadblocks that are encountered by some students (e.g., low peer student expectations and microaggressions, low faculty expectations, not having role models who look like them, lack of connections between academic content and their lived experiences, lack of a cohort, stereotype threat, not understanding the culture of college and some common terms that are used, etc.). The two presenters then reviewed evidence for the effectiveness of “high-impact practices,” and they introduced a variety of specific approaches and considerations for the classroom. They provided a rich set of materials, and I’m happy to share and discuss these with others.

In a related session on the previous day, Darryl Yong (Harvey Mudd College) had noted, “Belongingness is a pre-condition for success rather than a by-product of success.” Here are a few suggestions that emerged from that session:

  1. Our students from under-served groups are also more likely to have off-campus or on-campus jobs. In order to increase the students’ sense of academic belonging early in their academic careers, try to ensure that they can get certain types of on-campus jobs that might draw them closer to the institution’s identity or a department’s identity.
  2. Working in dyads (e.g., think-pair-share) is a great way for individuals to be engaged and feel affirmed, even when there are impostor feelings that you’re not aware of as the instructor.
  3. In introductory courses, be mindful in focusing on basic skills first (otherwise, students immediately shift to memorizing in a misguided attempt to not feel far behind, and the lack of skills perpetuates) and then be quite explicit in scaffolding skills.

From other sessions, here are a few additional pedagogical suggestions that I found appealing for a variety of STEM courses:

  1. Quick assessments:
    1. “In 8 words, describe…” (e.g., “photosynthesis”) – great at capturing the depth and precision of student’s understanding.
    2. Collect drawings from students – great at assessing students’ understanding of conceptual relations; can be quickly produced and quickly evaluated (incidentally, this is one of DyKnow’s virtues).
  2. Use articles from Science News and short journal articles to develop skills, e.g., have students draw the experimental design that is discussed in a .5 page article, use the article as a starting point for a chain of inferences, etc.
  3. Use common mistakes on your essay/short-answer questions as distractors for developing multiple-choice questions for a “concept inventory” test of the most important concepts you’ll cover during the semester. You can use this as a straightforward pre/post assessment of the effectiveness of curricular changes, e.g., as you incorporate more active learning and inclusive pedagogy in subsequent semesters.

Additional resources – contact for more info and discussions:

Resources that Dana and I would be happy to share and discuss in more detail:

  1. Worksheet by Gordon Uno and Susan Elrod: “What We Know ‘Works’ – Evidence-based Teaching Using Active Learning”
    • This provides a convenient list of 25 pedagogical activities, and Uno recommends using a variety of these – at least one per class – for pairing content and skills.
  2. Worksheet by Ellen Goldey, Professor of Biology at Wofford College, “A Few Essentials of Good Teamwork”
    • In Michael’s opinion, Dr. Goldey has a great system for developing teamwork skills while working on a set of meaningful projects across the semester. Goldey acknowledges that students are initially bad at teamwork, but she argues that’s exactly why the skill needs to be developed (especially given that employers value the skill).
  3. Questions for improving metacognitive (“thinking about thinking”) knowledge for students (in their approaches to learning different types of material) and faculty (in planning, monitoring, and evaluating their own teaching).

To be continued in part 2 . . .

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