In December, the Obama administration announced that increasing the number of U.S. college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by one million over the next decade is a top priority that will be bolstered by several federal agencies.
A new study at the U. of I. will seek to provide U.S. institutions of higher education with a model of best practices and methods to reform gateway STEM courses offered in the first two years of study, where increased enrollments, student retention and diversity are critical to meeting the growing national demand for STEM degree holders.
The National Science Foundation will fund the multiyear study, slated to begin in January, through a $2 million WIDER (Widening Implementation & Demonstration of Evidence Based Reforms) Grant. The ambitious U. of I. STEM education reform project spans three colleges - Liberal Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Education - and targets 10 academic units- chemistry, civil and environmental engineering, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, geology, mathematics, mechanical science and engineering, physics, the School of Integrative Biology and the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology. The gateway courses in these units annually enroll more than 17,000 students, and several of the courses are required for nearly all STEM majors on campus.
U. of I. physicist and educational psychologist Jose Mestre is the principal investigator on the study.
"The big idea here is not to invent new reforms," Mestre said. "It's taking evidence-based reforms - these are best practices for teaching and learning in gateway STEM courses that have already been extensively tested and proven - and looking at how these can most effectively be implemented in an institutional setting."
The team will establish "communities of practice" - collaborations of key faculty members within each academic unit that will develop each unit's strategy for implementing new pedagogies that move away from the traditional strictly lecture-based model of instruction. It's hoped that these communities, once established and provided with guidance and methods, will promote the organic emergence of the best-suited evidence-based reforms within their respective departments.
Co-principal investigator Geoffrey Herman is a visiting professor with the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education at the U. of I. whose most recent research has focused on lowering barriers to sustainable education reform. He will head the instructional support team.
Co-principal investigator Jennifer Greene is a U. of I. educational psychologist and evaluation expert. She will head the team that will perform ongoing quantitative and qualitative assessments of each "community of practice" and will evaluate student experiences and student performance in the courses. Evaluative feedback will be recorded and shared with the "communities of practice" to inform each unit's conversations and processes of change.