Undergraduate STEM education is undergoing a rapid change. There is a new culture developing around the principles of evidence-based teaching, and it is leading to a greater focus on effective classroom strategies. This is an important movement, and it is improving undergraduate education at all types of institutions. Most universities now have centers for teaching excellence and are putting resources into expanding the implementation of teaching practices across disciplines. From the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education (PULSE: https://www.pulsecommunity.org) efforts to revolutionize biology education, to team-based learning (https://www.teambasedlearning.org), to the development of AAC&U VALUE rubrics (https://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics); to cite a few initiatives, universities are experiencing a sea-change movement.
There are a lot of terms being used to describe the tenets of this movement. Active learning, evidence-based teaching, high-impact experiences, and research-based inquiry are but a few. Undergraduate research, service learning and community engagement, communities of practice, and the use of portfolios for course and student assessment are all increasing.
What's interesting to me, is how this culture is developing somewhat within the vacuum of undergraduate education, while incorporating the same pedagogy that has driven efforts to improve K-12 STEM education for decades. As a college professor who has been involved with the efforts to increase the amount of inquiry learning in both college and K-12 classrooms during this time, this feels like a watershed moment.
It seems to have started with a change in our focus at the university level on authentic assessment in response to increasing scrutiny from state governments. Once states began threatening to implement funding formulas reflecting the same type of success criteria that have been imposed on K-12 schools, faculty woke up to the reality that we no longer live in ivory towers. The AAC&U rubrics are expressly designed to keep the duty of evaluating student success in the hands of faculty and not state bureaucrats. This has been a difficult transition for most university faculty, as the "culture of assessment" has lead to a focus on learning objectives and assessment strategies that can show evidence of student mastery of these specific objectives. It is not that most faculty have had to completely change the way they are teaching, though many have, but that we have had to deliberately explicate the practices that we have always assumed were working due to some well-founded, and some self-delusional, traditional wisdom. We started with program learning objectives that lead to program level assessment. This allowed for the identification of areas where students were not actually learning what we thought they were. We mapped curricula, developed new high-impact strategies, and established new infrastructure to support this new culture of teaching. The need to incorporate assessable learning objectives into our syllabi made us all focus more deliberately on Bloom's taxonomy and authentic assessment.
If this all seems obvious to those of you incorporating inquiry principles into your K-12 classrooms, it is because this is what we have been asking you to do for quite some time. This is constructivism, and it is creeping out of its roots in science education into the broader world of p16 education. We are finally following our own prescription.
There are important differences between implementing inquiry strategies at the university level compared to K-12, but the push to incorporate evidence-based teaching strategies is what is common. Just as students learn differently as their brains develop during elementary, middle, and high school, undergraduate students have unique needs and respond to teaching strategies differently. And, students are resistant to this new culture, just as many faculty are. "Just tell me what I need to know for the test" is a common refrain in my classes. And when I try to explain that I would be doing them a disservice by simply outlining content information rather than teaching them applicable skills, they are often visibly angry as well as confused. They usually appreciate the approach by the end of the course, but it has become an unstated learning objective of the course itself to change the way they expect to learn.
Since "How People Learn" was first published in 1999, we have known that inquiry works and is the best approach to teaching. I myself attended a laboratory school in the seventies that incorporated these strategies and provided some of the data for this understanding. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything, since it helped me become the scientist and educator that I am. In fact, I think it helped me tremendously in graduate school, since it was then that I was finally expected to actually use and demonstrate the skills that I had learned at Model Laboratory School. Graduate students have long been thrown into the "think for yourself" pool, and it is often quite a shock. We can only shake our heads at why it has taken so long for the skills valued in graduate schools to be addressed as expressed learning objectives at the undergraduate level.
It has indeed taken a long time for this approach to trickle up from Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and others into informal science education, then more and more into K-12 education, and now finally starting to be implemented more at the undergraduate level. I hope I can say that I have had a small part to play in this. I know I that the skills I learned as science curator at the Children's Museum of Houston have been extremely valuable in my classrooms at Dueitt Middle School and now at UHD. I have tried to proclaim this clarion call as a science educator in the College of Science and Technology at UHD as we have developed our assessment and effective teaching culture. And I am proud to say that we are on the cutting edge of this movement at UHD, with the establishment of our Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and many other initiatives in service learning and community engagement.
What I want to actually convey in this post to the readers of HUNBlog, however, is thank you! You are Houston's STEM learning community, and you have fought this fight the longest and demonstrated most clearly that inquiry works! As Director of HUNSTEM, I am proud to be a small part of this vibrant community of teachers and community partners. And I promise to keep fighting for inquiry at all levels of education and in all segments of the community as we transition HUNSTEM from a K-12 learning community into a p16 learning community. It's time.
We've always been in this together, and now we are seeing the roots of this effort blossom. While we are gaining steam, there is still a long way to go. Thank you for standing by my side as we soldier forward into this bright future!