Improving STEM education by studying how faculty teach and network

Photo Credit: University flag
Photo Credit: University flag
by College of Arts and Sciences Wed, 08/09/2017 - 11:25

Researchers will study instructional differences between high school and college instruction as well as faculty networks

Two new interdisciplinary studies from University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Marilyne Stains and Brian Couch aim to improve STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – education for college students.

In one study, working groups of STEM faculty will look at the differences between high school- and college-level STEM instruction and the reasons that students struggle in the first-year STEM courses. The goal is to help STEM faculty adapt their instruction to ease students' transition from high school to college with the hope that fewer college students will leave the degree in the first year, creating more STEM professionals.

In the other study, researchers will look at how social networks among STEM faculty at three universities with STEM education development efforts affect change in instruction and culture. This will help institutions better leverage time and funding on networks that create successful change.

Marilyne Stains is an associate professor of chemistry whose research interest revolves around the transformation of instructional practices in college STEM courses. She received an NSF CAREER award in 2016 to study the effectiveness of professional development programs targeting faculty’s STEM teaching, and she leads the Stains Research Group.

Brian Couch is an assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences. The Couch Research Group focuses on understanding how faculty use different teaching strategies and how these strategies affect student outcomes. He has worked with the ARISE project, which aims to improve STEM teaching, and has been involved in other efforts focused on the development and use of assessment instruments.  

The studies, which are funded by the National Science Foundation, are explained in more detail below.

Collaborative Research: Promoting instructional change in introductory STEM courses through Faculty Learning Communities focused on the transition from high school to college

Overview: Fewer than half of first-year undergraduate students who start in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields graduate with a STEM degree six years later. Most of this attrition occurs between the first and second year, and students often cite instructional practices used in college courses as a prominent reason for leaving. Furthermore, underrepresented students, including those who are firstgeneration, leave STEM majors at higher rates than their classmates. Our emerging data suggest that the instructional practices used in introductory college STEM courses differ significantly from those used in high school science classes and that incoming college students hold expectations that are often not well aligned with actual college teaching practices.

Building on these findings, the goal of this project is to develop Introductory Course Environment Faculty Learning Communities (ICE-FLC) and conduct fundamental research on how faculty's first-hand knowledge of differences in STEM instruction at the college and high school levels can inspire instructional changes that enable a more seamless transition for incoming first-year students in introductory STEM courses.

Specifically, this proposal will accomplish three interrelated goals: 1. Develop ICE-FLCs at the University of Maine and University of Nebraska-Lincoln in which introductory STEM faculty from a variety of disciplines examine data on instructional differences between high school and college; discuss issues with high school teachers; explore reasons why students, especially first-generation college students, struggle in introductory courses at their institutions; and participate in group discussions and guided reflections; 2. Conduct research to understand how the ICE-FLC model affects teaching beliefs and course practices; and 3. Conduct research on how the ICE-FLC model impacts students in introductory classes and addresses student concerns.

These core activities are aligned with a framework for supporting innovation in STEM education at the undergraduate level.

Intellectual Merit: This project will use a multi-methods design to enhance the research base on how FLCs can be used to impact teaching practices and student experiences. We will address several key research questions: 1. To what extent does the analysis of observational and student data as well as discussions with high school teachers enable change in STEM faculty members' ways of thinking about teaching introductory courses and first-generation students? 2. How does the ICE-FLC transform faculty teaching practices? and 3. Does the program impact ICE-FLC participants' students?

This research will provide critical insights into the processes by which FLCs promote instructional change and enable the identification of factors that impact outcomes of this type of professional development. The research team brings together four Discipline-Based Education Research faculty (two biologists, one chemist, and one physicist) with demonstrated experience facilitating FLCs and expertise in the study of instructional change at the undergraduate level along with the Provost at the University of Maine who will provide institutional support.

Broader Impacts: This project will support local college STEM instructors as they work to improve instructional practices in introductory courses. At a broader level, this program will provide an adaptable model that other institutions can adopt in order to promote success among their unique introductory STEM populations. The ICE-FLC program and associated research thus represent foundational steps toward widespread instructional transformations that provide rich STEM education experiences for college students, enhance recruitment and retention of students in STEM majors, and strengthen the next generation of STEM

Furthermore, both institutions involved in this collaborative proposal are land-grant universities with significant issues regarding the retention of first-generation college students. Additional broader impacts focus on improving educational opportunities for these students who are underrepresented in STEM fields. This project will also provide professional development and partnership opportunities for high school STEM teachers.

Taken together, the proposed activities will impact students, college instructors, first-year academic advisors, college administrators, and high school teachers--all necessary stakeholders to drive educational transformation in introductory STEM courses.

Collaborative Research: Mapping Change in Higher Education-Social Networks and STEM Reforms

Overview: The multi-institutional study, "Mapping Change in Higher Education - Social Networks and STEM Reforms" proposes to identify important social networks among STEM faculty in three different campus environments and to study the relationships between these social networks, STEM education change strategies underway at each institution, and the actual change observed in instructional practices and institutional culture around teaching.

"Mapping Change" engages researchers from University of South Florida, University of Nebraska, and Boise State University. Each campus has been engaged in an NSF-funded project to catalyze the local adoption of evidence-based teaching practice and to understand more generally how institutions can promote change.

"Mapping Change" will use these three sites to explore three research questions: 1. How are teaching networks related to other networks (research, departmental affairs) for faculty at institutions engaged in STEM educational reform? 2. In what ways do different educational reform strategies correlate with features of teaching networks? 3. How are the features of teaching and other networks associated with the measured outcomes of educational reform efforts?

These research questions will be addressed through a rich mixed-methods research design conducted on each of three campuses, for each of three years. Social network analysis and institutional climate characterization will draw on both quantitative data collected via faculty survey and qualitative data drawn from faculty interviews. STEM education reform strategies will be characterized on each campus by gathering rates and patterns of participation in programs and through interviews with change project leaders. Finally, the extent to which faculty on each campus have adopted evidence-based instructional practices will be measured using a faculty survey, direct classroom observations, and rubric-scored course artifacts.

The analysis of these data will provide insight into how ideas around teaching innovation might be shared, especially in research-focused environments. The project's ability to compare and contrast social networks in the three different contexts of local change strategy will illuminate how change strategies connect with and/or influence local relationships. Finally, our results will address how social networks relate to actual changes faculty make or have made and the institutional culture around teaching.

Intellectual Merit: The intellectual merit of the "Mapping Change" project lies in its contribution to our understanding of how institutional change projects focused on STEM teaching are related to the larger social context in which faculty situate their work, with special attention to the fact that the behavior of many faculty is driven by their research efforts and the relationships associated with that work. If we want institutional change around undergraduate education to be successful, we will need to be clear about how these efforts connect with the local environment for faculty.

Our project purposefully looks at three different institutions in order to gain a broad perspective about what networks can look like and how they are connected to local institutional cultures and local change efforts.

Broader Impacts: The findings from the "Mapping Change" project will have important implications for the national efforts to reform STEM Education. A great deal of resources (time and money) have been aimed toward reforming the STEM Education experience for students. This project will provide insight into the kinds of relationships that impact successful change and how the networks connect to change efforts. This should allow institutions interested in making changes to better leverage the time and funding available to successfully make change.

Further, the ultimate beneficiaries of an increased understanding of faculty social networks and their relationship to change efforts around teaching are our students. The more we understand about the features of change and what influences successful change efforts, the closer we will be to realizing a vision in which all students who enroll in STEM courses at the college level experience high quality, evidence-based instruction.