06/28/2013 04:58 pm ET | Updated Aug 28, 2013

An Important STEM Experiment to Watch

Education in Science, Technology, Engineer, and Mathematics (STEM) at all levels is critical to the U.S. future because of its relevance to the economy and the need for a citizenry able to make wise decisions on issues faced by modern society. Calls for improvement have become increasingly widespread and desperate, and there have been countless national, local, and private programs aimed at improving STEM education, but there continues to be little, if any, discernible change in either student achievement or student interest in STEM. Articles and letters in the spring and summer 2012 editions of the National Academies of Science publication Issues in Science and Technology extensively discussed STEM education questions from many angles. Largely absent from these discussions, however, is attention to learning.

Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman is a visible and consistent "catalyst for change" in his advocacy for better science education in our colleges and university. His premise is simple -- transformation is possible if an institution really cares

Part of this caring is to gain perspectives from many different, well-respected sources on how people learn to become experts. If done with good intellectual acumen, this will significantly help STEM education. Universities and colleges need better methods for evaluating science teaching, particularly in light of evolving research on undergraduate teaching and learning. There has been extensive research on teaching practices in science and engineering courses at colleges and universities, and this work has revealed a number of practices that consistently achieve superior outcomes relative to the traditional lecture method. A broad-based implementation plan is important.

Now, an important experiment on university-based STEM teach and student learning has been launched. With significant support from Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Association of American Universities (AAU) recently announced the selection of eight AAU member campuses to serve as project sites for a five-year initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. With the new support from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the AAU launched a three-year, $4.7 million initiative that will underwrite $500,000 seed money to each project site over the next three years for implementing change. In addition, a $294,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will allow for the development of a set of metrics for the initiative that will allow individual institutions to evaluate their use of evidence-based teaching practices. The cohort of institutions is: Brown University, Michigan State University, The University of Arizona, University of California, Davis, University of Colorado, Boulder, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis.

The project is designed to encourage departments in these disciplines at AAU institutions and other institutions across the nation to adopt proven, evidence-based teaching practices that are effective in the promotion of student learning, and to provide faculty with the encouragement, training, and support to be effective educators. AAU will also create a STEM network to enable faculty and administrators at AAU institutions to share best practices and promote sustainable change in undergraduate STEM teaching and learning.

Gail D. Burd, University of Arizona vice provost for academic affairs and, principal investigator on the University of Arizona AAU grant, and co-Principal Investigator Lisa Elfring, an associate professor of molecular and cellular biology and also chemistry and biochemistry, put the importance of the new funding, as it relates to significant institutional change, into perspective: "... the most important aspect of the project is really to help the university build a community in which the majority of STEM educators are aware of research-based teaching strategies and have the resources and creative space to try them out in their own teaching."

Overall, the AAU initiative is an important "experiment" worth watching. Can major universities bring evidence-based teaching into the institutional culture and emulate the successes in student learning, and enhanced retention and degree completion for their large cohorts of students, that is found with much smaller cohorts of students in private, traditionally STEM-strong private liberal arts institutions such as Carleton (MN), Hope (MI), Oberlin (OH), Swarthmore (PA), and Williams (MA) and many others?

AAU President Hunter Rawlings summarizes well hoped for, and expected, outcomes: "The initiative... will lead to increased retention of students in STEM fields and improved completion rates for STEM majors, as well as a more science-literate workforce." A major effort worth watching, and if successful, one that will have a significant positive influence on the STEM workforce so badly needed by our nation.