Improving Student Success by Connecting Centers for Teaching and Learning and STEM Education Centers

By Kacy Redd, Ph.D.

As STEM Education Centers (SECs) grow in prominence on college campuses across the country, a new report released today details how universities can pair the work of these critical hubs aimed at improving teaching and student success in STEM fields with their Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTLs). The Collaborating at the Center report, written by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the POD Network in Higher Education, presents key recommendations on ways these two distinct types of campus-based centers can work more closely to further national STEM education improvement efforts.

The report is based on some of the key findings of 46 leaders from SECs and CTLs who gathered at a November 2015 workshop that APLU, the POD Network, and the Network of STEM Education Centers (NSEC) convened with support from the National Science Foundation. The workshop was designed to introduce these communities to each other, discuss areas of synergy, and explore ways that these communities could most effectively collaborate to improve student success on their campuses and nationally as networks.

Some of the key recommendations from the report include:

  • Approach cross-unit collaborations by inviting everyone to the table, creating relevant leadership groups, and keeping stakeholders informed.
  • Map the "territory of collaboration": identify common elements of mission, differentiated strategies, shared goals, strengths, stakeholders, expertise, resources, roles for each center, and benefits from participating in shared projects.
  • Acknowledge stretched staffing and resources by articulating different possible modes of collaborating at various levels of commitment and normalizing different responses as helpful and not damaging to the centers' relationship.
  • Record progress and make success visible.

The Collaborating at the Centers report is primarily intended for SEC and CTL directors and staff, university administrators who are interested in maximally leveraging the different kinds of centers on their campus, for network leaders in POD and NSEC, and for policymakers and funders interested in understanding how institutional structures/organizations are leading improved student success in STEM.

CTLs are well-established entities on college campuses with a history of over 50 years, representing the growth of faculty development, or more broadly educational development, efforts in the United States. CTLs often work across disciplines, either institution-wide or within a school or college, supporting and advancing instructional practice, assessment, educational technology, professional development, and related areas for faculty, teaching assistants, and others.

STEM Education Centers are hubs of campus-based efforts leading transformation of undergraduate STEM education, development and support of STEM teacher preparation, and engagement in the community and broader impact at their institutions. STEM Education Centers have only recently begun to sprout up on campuses across the country. A group of such centers, known as the Network of STEM Education Centers, currently engages 149 SECs at 126 institutions. APLU has played a central role in helping to organize these STEM Centers. NSF has provided funding support.

As part of the workshop, participants also detailed and shared the expertise of SECs and CTLs, which include:

  • Pedagogical expertise. CTLs' expertise is more general and can span across disciplines, though is often well informed about STEM-specific, evidence-based practices. SECs tend to have deep knowledge of STEM pedagogy informed by DBER (Discipline Based Educational Research).
  • A connection to student success efforts on campus. Generally, SECs are connected more directly to students than CTLs. Both CTLs and SECs have experience working with identified groups of STEM faculty on issues of student learning and persistence in STEM.
  • Involvement in institutional culture change. Both CTLs and SECs have experience working across departments/units of an institution to impact organizational change (catalyzing important discussions); building interdisciplinary networks by bringing individuals and units together for different purposes. For SECs, institutional change efforts are specifically focused on STEM education reform efforts. For CTLs, such efforts may be STEM-specific or may be more general across disciplines.
  • Shared commitment to scholarly approaches. The work of CTLs and SECs are informed by literature, and centers work collaboratively across unit boundaries to address teaching and learning challenges/institutional needs.