Illinois team studies best practices for STEM education reform

10/28/2013 Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

A new study at the Illinois will seek to provide US institutions of higher education with model evidence-based reforms for gateway STEM courses.

Written by Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

Curriculum often progresses incrementally. Each course leads to the next like stepping stones through a wide stream. Yet, for new undergraduates—especially those majoring in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM)—leaping onto the first stones can present a challenge. Some introductory STEM courses fill lecture halls. The content can be difficult to master, and because of class size, there are sometimes fewer opportunities for one-on-one mentoring. 

The NSF WIDER team (from left): Professors Geoffrey Herman, Jose Mestre, Jonathan Tomkin, Matthew West, and Jennifer Greene. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.
The NSF WIDER team (from left): Professors Geoffrey Herman, Jose Mestre, Jonathan Tomkin, Matthew West, and Jennifer Greene. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.
A new study at the University of Illinois will seek to provide US institutions of higher education with model reforms for these gateway STEM courses. The reforms will focus on improving student retention, increasing enrollment, and promoting diversity. Last December, the Obama administration announced that several federal agencies would make increasing the number of undergraduate STEM degree holders a top priority. The goal is one million more graduates over the next decade. This new study will be crucial for meeting that goal. 

Over the next several years, the researchers will introduce and evaluate new methods and evidence-based reforms in ten academic departments, including ECE ILLINOIS. Their work is funded by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s WIDER Program. (WIDER stands for Widening Implementation & Demonstration of Evidence Based Reforms.)

Co-principal investigator Geoffrey Lindsay Herman (BSEE '05, MSEE '07, PhD '11), a visiting professor with the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education, indicated the team would initially focus on two courses within this department: Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE 110) and Introduction to Computer Engineering (ECE 120, formerly ECE 198 JL). “Generally speaking, those courses are still viewed as weed-outs [by the students]…which is not true at all,” Herman said. “We actually do want students to persist, but we want students to understand that this is sometimes some challenging material.”

While maintaining the same academic expectations, the team will explore ways to make the laboratory and discussion sections “more enjoyable for the students, more welcoming, more engaging, more effective,” Herman said. They are also interested in implementing a flip classroom model, where lecture content is presented online, and the lecture period is used for collaborative discussions between faculty and student about the assignments.

“The big idea here is not to invent new reforms,” explained Jose Mestre, a professor of physics and educational psychology who is the principal investigator on the study. “It’s taking evidence-based reforms—these are best practices for teaching and learning in gateway STEM courses that have already been extensively tested and proven—and looking at how these can most effectively be implemented in an institutional setting. This is challenging because each department at a university will have its own methods and traditions and will generally resist change.”

To alleviate that resistance, the team will establish groups of key faculty members within each department, known as communities of practice. The groups will develop strategies for moving away from traditional lecture-based models of instruction, and it’s hoped that the groups will promote the organic emergence of the most appropriate reforms for their respective departments.

“One of the greatest challenges to education reform is that it is often pursued by passionate, but lone heroes,” observed Herman. “These pioneers can make great strides, but the changes they make are rarely sustainable or adopted by others. Our ‘no heroes’ approach first aims to create and sustain cultural change through communities of practice and to allow that cultural change to drive innovation and reform."

For ECE, the community of practice will initially comprise four to six faculty members. “Creating these communities of practice and bringing resources to the faculty is a key part in terms of making it possible for the faculty to invest time,” Herman said. Instead of the groups being an extra responsibility—like attending pedagogy workshops—the community of practice would fit into the normal faculty schedule. Instructors and curriculum experts would be brought into the group meetings, instead of requiring special off-campus training. “It helps reduce the time and energy the faculty members need to invest to make that change, which is critical if you ever really want to [see reform],” Herman said. 

As the communities of practice implement the first wave of reforms, the researchers hope that broader discussions will be generated within each department. “The end goal is to have the whole department really feel like they know what these courses are for. They know how they’re being taught, and they’ve all bought into it,” Herman said.  

Other co-principal investigators include Jennifer Greene, a professor of educational psychology; Jonathan Tomkin a research associate professor of geology; and Matthew West, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. 

“We’re going to take it one step at a time,” said Herman. “We’ll make stepwise changes to see, if we make this change, did it help? If we make this change, did it help?” And in the end, with these five researchers inspecting the various stepping-stones that STEM students rely upon, the slippery and shaky ones nearest the bank will be cleaned and reinforced. Reforms will be implemented and shared with other institutions. The material may still be difficult, but a sure-footed first step will encourage students to reach for the next. 

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This story was published October 28, 2013.