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STEM Teaching Needs Reboot

The time for talking is over. A group of research-active science faculty members has called for "immediate change" to improve the quality of university STEM education. That means cutting out the lectures and replacing them with activities that will engage students in learning core scientific concepts and skills in science, technology, engineering and math.

In a succinct commentary published in the journal Nature, nine academics representing the Association of American Universities and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement Cottrell Scholars promote "pedagogical practices, programmes and policies" they said they believe are essential for improving undergraduate STEM teaching. The scholar program supports early career teachers-scholars in chemistry, physics and astronomy by providing "significant" discretionary awards for research.

The main recommendation from the report is to support, evaluate and reward "great teaching," an effort that calls for change at three levels: the individual faculty member, the department or college and university administration.

At the faculty level, the article stated, instructors need to shift their perspectives from "What did I teach?" to "What did my students learn?" Learning environments, they added, need to shift from students being "passive note-takers" or "followers" of "cookbook" lab experiments to students becoming active participants in their learning processes. Both of those endeavors will require class evaluations that go beyond end-of-term student surveys for assessing teacher performance, such as classroom observation protocols and pre- and post-course testing.

At the middle level improvement will only take place, the authors wrote, when departments and colleges "foster a team culture of continuous teaching improvement," including peer support and cross-departmental dialog. Departments should adopt core concepts that need to be mastered by all first-year students, and faculty members need to align their course curricula to those learning goals, the commentary said. To enable that, departments will have to "reallocate funds to support teaching innovation and encourage staff to use campus centres for teaching and learning." Similarly, they added, teaching — not just research output — needs to count for promotion and tenure.

At the top level, the article explained, administrators need to inspire a culture that "values teaching" and continuous improvement and innovation. That can be done, the authors advised, by recognizing and rewarding good teaching through endowed chairs, making data and analytics accessible to monitor progress, and using improvement efforts in STEM education as a fund-raising tool.

If valuing teaching is to move from rhetoric to reality, the paper concluded, "institutions, colleges and departments must expect and enable their faculty members to be scholarly about teaching. And they must assess, recognize and reward those who are."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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