STEM research leaders call for change in undergrad education

Author: William G. Gilroy

Undergraduates in 2012 Dan Philpott course

Immediate change is needed at all levels to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in research universities, according to a paper on undergraduate STEM learning and teaching co-authored by Zachary Schultz, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, that appears in a special July issue of the journal Nature.

The authors — representatives of the Association of American Universities and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) Cottrell Scholars — call for the implementation of rigorous pedagogical practices, programs and policies that support, evaluate and reward great teaching. If valuing teaching is to move from rhetoric to reality, “it will require a reallocation of funds — not just priorities,” they conclude.

Schultz believes that STEM teaching requires a different approach than traditional undergraduate teaching methods.

“My experience with STEM teaching is you have find ways to encourage students to engage the material,” he said. “Unlike other disciplines, just reading the text will not help you. Modern pedagogical approaches all promote active learning. As an instructor, it is much more rewarding to engage with the students interactively than to lecture to them. The goal is to promote student participation and ownership of their learning. As an instructor, I am willing to try different approaches, but ultimately we want to evaluate if it helps students attain the desired learning goals.”

Notre Dame has a number of unique programs devoted to engaged undergraduate STEM teaching. An ePortfolio initiative in the College of Engineering provides digitized collections of material including demonstrations, resources and accomplishments that represent an individual, group or institution. Notre Dame researchers have described how ePortfolios can be analyzed to measure student engagement levels providing a new digital learning environment opposed to traditional learning management systems. The College of Science uses a new teaching tool called the Lightboard, which enables faculty to produce videos using the Lightboard to “flip” their classroom and complement their teaching initiatives.

Zachary Schultz
Zachary Schultz

“At Notre Dame, we have tremendous resources and provide quality teaching,” Schultz said. “As we discuss in the article, there are a number of approaches that might improve on the strong foundation that currently exists at Notre Dame. Ultimately it is about student learning, and our students deserve the best experience and service we can provide them.”

The paper is part of a package of articles exploring challenges in STEM education. Schultz became involved in writing the article through his Cottrell Scholar Award from RCSA.

“RCSA is using the network of scholars it has built to promote initiatives in STEM education,” he said. “I joined a group focused on effective evaluation of teaching and learning about two years ago. We ran a workshop where we brought together leaders in STEM educational research as well as professional society representatives, funding agencies and regular faculty. The workshop went over what is out there and explored new methods for improving and assessing student learning. The workshop organizers then co-wrote the piece in Nature and a longer report on the workshop that was also published this month.”

Contact: Zachary Schultz, 574-631-1853, Schultz.41@nd.edu

Originally published by William G. Gilroy at news.nd.edu on July 20, 2015.