Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Undergraduate Science Education at a Crossroad

This past weekend I attended a 3-hour symposium on undergraduate education at the AAAS meeting in Boston.  While the subject was not immediately focused on gender equity or diversity, it is closely related, and interesting linkages were made by symposium participants.  In brief, improving undergraduate education requires leadership for culture change of the same kind required for improving the status of women and other underrepresented groups in the physical sciences.

The symposium had four outstanding speakers and a breakout session followed by wrap-up.  The first speaker was Susan Singer of Carleton College, who is now Director of Undergraduate Education at NSF.  She chaired the National Academies report Discipline-Based Education Research.  The report summarizes education research approaches and findings in several disciplines including astronomy and physics.  It is a good introduction to the research basis for interactive, inquiry-based teaching methods, but is not a primer or beginner's guide.  The challenge of spreading these methods more widely will be assisted by a companion "Practitioner Report" that the NRC committee is working on and hopes to complete by next year.

Jo Handelsman of Yale spoke about the PCAST Engage to Excel report that she co-chaired.  This report argues the necessity for training more STEM professionals in order to support a growing economy.  Importantly, Dr. Handelsman and her report emphasize the low-lying fruit of improving the success of students already interested in STEM, who fail to graduate college because of poor teaching and support structures or other problems.  She said that if the graduation rate of STEM majors nation-wide was increased from 40% to 50%, the national need would be fulfilled, and would diversify STEM disciplines by boosting the numbers of women and underrepresented minorities.  Although she didn't talk about it, Dr. Handelsman's group wrote last year's famous PNAS paper Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students.

Ann Austin of Michigan State University is co-PI on the NSF-funded Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, which is now a national network. (Wisconsin astronomer Chair Bob Mathieu, who spoke at the CSWA-sponsored special session at the Long Beach AAS Meeting, is CIRTL Director.)  Dr. Austin talked about how to accomplish culture change using a multi-pronged strategy centered at the Department level, involving training, rewards, leadership, work allocation and external context.  As a Department Head I’ve been doing some of the things she suggested, but I learned some good new ideas.

Carl Wieman, a physics Nobel Laureate and education research leader, took a pessimistic view that only governmental regulation will change undergraduate education at research universities.  He advocates the government to collect and publish data on teaching methods used in undergraduate courses in each STEM department.  An example of successful and surprisingly rapid change arising from such regulation was the introduction of ethics training for all NIH grantees and NSF-funded graduate students.

Small-group discussion brought out the great opportunity afforded by massive open online courses, if we can get faculty interested in the education research it affords.  The importance of training graduate students and postdocs, our future faculty, was also noted - with excellent contributions made by Harvard astronomy graduate student Nathan Sanders, co-founder of

It was a great pleasure to hear this all-star lineup and to talk with them about culture change to improve undergraduate education and create more inclusive climates.

1 comment:

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