Discovery Learning Research Center

The Discovery Learning Research Center works to transform education, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and STEM-related disciplines, through research and implementation of research-based practices to increase learning.

Office of the Executive Vice President for Research and Partnerships (EVPRP), Purdue University-Main Campus
Established: 2003

Profile submitted by Wilella D. Burgess

Vision and Goals

The Discovery Learning Research Center advances education in STEM and related disciplines through interdisciplinary research and innovation in teaching and learning. Specific goals include:

  1. Conduct breakthrough research that advances the scholarship of STEM education.
  2. Promote novel educational practices that enhance STEM literacy, learning, impact, and student success.
  3. Communicate scholarship and practice to influence policies that advance STEM education.

The following signature themes guide the activities of DLRC:

  • Translational educational research in STEM and STEM-related disciplines, including curricula, instructional materials and methods, and physical or virtual learning environments
  • Innovative pedagogies for formal and informal learning, including professional development for STEM educators
  • Contribution to research and activities to influence national policies in STEM education and STEM scholarship

Center/Program Structure

The Discovery Learning Research Center (DLRC) is one of the centers comprising Purdue's innovative Discovery Park, an interdisciplinary research enterprise committed to advancing science, engaging industry, enhancing educational and work environments, and improving the quality of life. Since its inception in March 2003, the Discovery Learning Research Center has fostered more than $80 million in funded research focused on identifying, developing, and nurturing interdisciplinary teams and projects that integrate, synthesize, and promote discovery, learning, and engagement in STEM education. The Discovery Learning Research Center is housed in a 22,000 square-foot state of the art facility featuring unique, flexible spaces designed for educational research. The spaces also incorporate technologies and structural features that allow for collection of research data about the learning experience.

The DLRC, led by a faculty director, includes 12 staff members, including a managing director, operations manager, 2 assessment specialists, two project coordinators, an intern coordinator, laboratory manager, two business office staff, and two support staff. In addition, the Center employs 6-8 graduate assistants and 3-5 undergraduate assistants. Faculty fellows provide additional intellectual capital to the Center on a rotating basis. The DLRC provides expertise and infrastructure support that includes project initiation, assessment and evaluation and management of STEM education projects. DLRC assessment staff can provide project and external evaluation services and consultation that include designing comprehensive evaluation plans organized around the activities that address project goals, developing evaluation instruments, analyzing and reporting on data.

Discovery Park reports directly to the Vice President for Research. Our Center is moving to a new home which will most likely be within the College of Education.

Are there advantages of being structured this way?
Being housed outside an academic unit allowed DLRC to serve as neutral party in the development of multi-college proposals and programs. It also allowed DLRC to serve as an "external" evaluator for campus-based proposals in any academic unit. Our new home in the College of Education will provide better access to "allies" that understand, value, recognize, and can support the Center's research agenda.

Are there particular challenges that result from this structure?
Existing outside the "normal" academic structure of the university resulted in under-recognition of the value we added to many projects. As a center in a STEM-oriented unit of a research university, the social science aspects of our Center's research was often viewed as "less serious" than the work of other, more "hard" STEM-oriented Centers. Our new home in an academic unit may make it more difficult to be seen as an unbiased entity.

Center Funding

  • Base-level institutional support
  • Endowments
  • Grant-funding

The Center is now in a state of transition to a more fee for service/grant funded model.

How has this funding structure influenced the undergraduate STEM education programming the center offers?
Endowment and foundation money have allowed us to both do programming and to conduct rigorous research related to this programming. Restructuring will eliminate this source of funding and negatively impact our ability to both provide evidenced-based program and to contribute to scholarship in this area.

What are the specific advantages of having a center funded in this way?
The major advantages of endowment funding is to allow development of a coherent vision that is not reliant on the vagaries of grant funding. A consistent funding source also fosters a stable workforce and facilitates talent acquisition, development, teambuilding, and retention. Grants provide great opportunities for relationship building and collaboration with other units on campus and with colleagues outside the university. They can stretch and challenge the status quo.

What are the challenges?
Institutional support can be more flexible than grant funding, but can vary based on the political climate of the university. Grant funding provides support for individual projects but does not sustain a vision.

Has this funding structure has changed over time?
We are in the process of restructuring as the University realigns resources to meet evolving strategic directions and a changing funding landscape.

Description of Programming

The DLRC is uniquely configured to support research that enhances our understanding of the learning process by designing and assessing innovative educational programs and interactive learning technologies. Discoveries gained from DLRC supported research are transforming learning at all levels, from preschool to graduate school, and in the workplace and society as a whole. The DLRC brings a variety of expertise and experience to collaborative projects, including:

  • designing and conducting educational research;
  • designing, developing and conducting evaluation of formal and informal educational programs;
  • launching, coordinating and supporting projects;
  • disseminating research and evaluation results through presentations, manuscripts and other means; and
  • developing, delivering and evaluating student and faculty professional development.

DLRC works with faculty from across Purdue University on the submission of approximately 40 proposals each year. More than half of DLRC submissions go to the National Science Foundation, with the remainder submitted to NIH and other federal agencies, foundations, subcontracts with other universities, and internal solicitations. In the past 5 years, DLRC has received funding for a total of 92 projects, spanning higher education and K-12, including teacher professional development. The following list of projects illustrates the range of DLRC initiatives:

  • STEM-ed Hub – an on-line community of practice for university researchers, administrators, and K-12 teachers.
  • Developing and researching approaches for the inclusion and retention of individuals with disabilities in laboratory research through assistive technology, laboratory modifications, research experiences for disabled undergraduates, on-line simulations and communities of practice.
  • Creating, implementing and evaluating a transformation of the first- and second-year undergraduate chemistry, biology and atmosheric sciences laboratory curricula to engage students in authentic, on-going research.
  • Designing and studying a university-wide faculty professional development and course reform program to transform foundational courses into student-centered approaches with research-based practices.
  • Factors that affect undergraduate student retention and success, including pedagogical changes, academic, social, and cultural supports, and experiential learning activities.
  • zipTrips – examining the efficacy of electronic field trips that connect real-world scientists with middle schoolers in enhancing student knowledge, interest, and enthusiasm for science.
  • Improving science learning in grades 3-6 by preparing teachers and prospective teachers to use engineering design for inquiry-based learning.
  • Developing and managing partnerships among K-12 schools, community science centers, museums and university faculty to enhance K-12 student understanding of and interest in health science through the use of animal models for human health.
  • Developing models for the support and retention of rural STEM teachers through professional development and community building that also supports transfer of cutting edge research to the classroom.

Successes and Impacts

Because DLRC engages in research and implementation activities across the educational span, we have examples of impact in a variety of different programs. For example, the CASPiE program succeessfully created an approach to providing first- and second-year science students with research experiences as part of their mainstream undergraduate laboratory courses. This approach was implemented in chemistry at over 17 institutions in the United States and one in Australia. It was also instituted in biology and atmospheric sciences at Purdue, and has received funding from both NSF and HHMI. In 2012, the biology program received the Science Prize for Inquiry Teaching. To date, over 6500 students have been through a CASPiE course. Program evaluation, with comparison to control sections, has demonstrated a variety of positive effects in terms of student understanding of content, student performance in later courses, critical thinking abilities and affective measures. At the faculty level, we are in the midst of a university-wide effort to transform courses using research-based, student-centered models of teaching. Over 60 faculty have already been through the professional development sequence, with plans to work with 30 per year on a recurring basis. Evaluation has already demonstrated links between higher levels of engagement in redesigned courses and student success. This is a relatively new effort and evaluation is ongoing.

At the K-12 level, a number of projects engage directly with students and/or teachers in order to enhance STEM instruction and our understanding of STEM education best practice. One example is "Science Learning through Engineering Design" (SLED). SLED responds to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for engineering practices and ideas to be taught alongside scientific inquiry and science concepts in the K-12 classroom. SLED provides teacher professional development for in-service and pre-service teachers to learn how to teach science using engineering design, conducts research on the impact of using engineering design as a vehicle for science learning in elementary classrooms, and develops a library of hands-on and inquiry-oriented engineering design-based curricular materials for grades 3-6. SLED research is informed by the project's work with over 200 teachers and nearly 5,000 students from 35 school districts across Indiana.

The Research Goes to School (RGS) project connects pre-service and in-service teachers with Puirdue researchers on the cutting edge of solutions to grand challenges. The DLRC bases teacher professional development on problem-based learning (PBL), engaging teachers and students in real-world simulations to mimic actual scientific processes. This gives students a glimpse of the exciting world of today's science --not the dusty "history of science" that most students encounter in current science courses. Through this project, DLRC is honing a model for taking any grand challenge research and connecting it to high school STEM standards, making it accessible for classroom instruction.

Through zipTrips, Purdue used webcasting to bring practicing scientists to middle school students in real time ("live" online) to increase their access to STEM researchers; nurture their knowledge, interest and enthusiasm for STEM fields; and enhance teacher confidence. Initially funded by a pre-college award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, zipTrips has developed and tested the efficacy of these electronic field trips for 6th, 7th and 8th graders. Professionally produced, they are visually appealing, fast-paced, and able to reach thousands of students simultaneously — making zipTrips a cost-effective way to link students with scientists. Nine live field trips, over a period of 4 years, with a total audience of over 53,000 students in 1,300 classrooms spanning 38 states and several countries provided a rich source of data for understanding the impact of electronic field trips on student indicators. This work has resulted in 3 refereed journal articles, 27 conference presentations, and 5 awards. Extensive program analysis using pre and post test student and teacher surveys and the draw-a-scientist activity reveals that zipTrips aid researchers in meeting broader impact goals. Across grade levels, zipTrips positively influence student perceptions of scientists and science careers; increase student awareness of career opportunities in science; provide valuable supplemental content online for teachers; and allow students to see science and interact with scientists who would otherwise be unavailable to them.

Evaluation and Assessment

How does your center demonstrate its value, both in terms of assessing its own programming and responding to external evaluation?
Center evaluation is based on metrics (proposals submitted, proposals funded), scholarship (peer-reviewed journal articles, presentations, posters, workshops, books), collaborations. We assess our own programs for research and development purposes using qualitative and quantitative methods, as appropriate. The main focus of our Center is not programming, rather, programming is a function of our research agenda.

Elements Contributing to Success

As a Center within Purdue's Discovery Park – which falls administratively under the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research and Partnerships (EVPRP) – the DLRC sits outside the University's college and departmental structure. This placement facilitates the work of DLRC across colleges and units on campus and enhances interdisciplinary collaboration. Base level funding through the EVPRP's office allows DLRC staff to engage in proposal development activities with faculty regardless of their college affiliation.

Supplemental Materials

DLRC 2013 Annual Report (Acrobat (PDF) 18.6MB Jul30 13)

Essay: DLRC Partnership Models - Wilella Burgess and Loran Parker, Discovery Learning Research Center, Purdue University