What could the President do?

Cathy Manduca
Author Profile
published Jan 30, 2011
Earlier this month I was invited to attend a planning meeting for PCAST, the President's advisors on science and technology. They (via a subcommittee) are gearing up to write a report on STEM higher education, which will be a companion to their excellent piece on STEM K-12 education (my favorite parts of this are the emphasis on preparation and inspiration together, and the reminder that we do need to worry about high-achieving students). You can find the report here by scrolling down to K-12 STEM Education report.

By way of introduction at the meeting, we were asked to provide three minutes of advice to the President as to how he could help improve STEM higher education and in particular the preparation of students for the STEM workforce. Here is my response. There were lots of people at the meeting who could speak to the general question, so I spoke from the point of view of helping faculty be better teachers.

In my mind there are three critical aspects to workforce preparation – students, faculty and institutions. Students have to be inspired, and prepared for higher education and have opportunities to obtain an education that meet their economic, geographic, and temporal needs. Faculty need to be supported in providing excellent teaching and mentoring, and institutions need to have well designed programs and pathways from those programs into the workforce. . I work primarily on the faculty piece, helping faculty to be better teachers. I've also done some work with geoscience departments helping them develop stronger programs by strengthening their curriculum, all of the things they do with students outside of class (for example research, clubs, service work), mentoring, and the ability of their students to move into the workforce.

My work is grounded in the notion that teaching (and for that matter educating) is something you learn to do well and that it can be improved by both new knowledge (about teaching or about the subject you are teaching) and by practice. Our approach is based on the way the scientific community works: sharing knowledge, building on the work of others, and synthesizing its collective work into higher levels of understanding that can underpin the next generation of practice. This model is appropriate because it is a culture that STEM faculty have experience with by virtue of the training as graduate students and in many cases their ongoing work as researchers. Further it is based on strong educational theory regarding the importance of collaboration in learning and the value of distributed cognition in problem solving.

What could the President do to help foster a national scale community engaged in improving undergraduate teaching?

  • There is a perception among many faculty, and within their professional research communities that scholarship, and in particular scientific research, is more highly valued by the nation than the work that they do teaching. While education is increasingly on their radar screen as an important aspect of the scientific community's work, the President's leadership could help move undergraduate teaching into a more central position in the priorities of science faculty by emphasizing its importance to the nations future.
  • Most faculty do not consider learning to be a better teacher to be a central aspect of their work. At best, opportunities to improve their teaching are viewed as desirable luxuries. This attitude most likely reflects an antiquated view that teachers are 'born not made' rather than our current understanding that teaching, like surgery, is a difficult, creative practice informed by research and improved through experience. The depth to which the old view is ingrained is reflected in the fact that only recently have we begun to provide opportunities for graduate students aspiring to be professors to learn teaching at the same time that they are learning science.
I would argue that a culture of continuous improvement of teaching practice, for the individual professor, for the institution, and in fact for the nation, is essential to highest quality education for all. This is best supported through the development of a culture that recognizes that teaching is difficult and that supports ongoing learning beginning in graduate school (or earlier) and continuing within faculty communities. These communities can be disciplinary (focused on the topic of instruction) or interdisciplinary (focused on the method of instruction or a cross cutting goal like writing). They can be institutional, regional, national or international. Like scientific communities it is essential that there is good connectivity among communities to enrich and hybridize learning. The President could play an important role in calling for and legitimizing this type of culture.
  • The role of the National Science Foundation, particularly the Division of Undergraduate Education, in supporting current efforts to improve teaching and learning at the undergraduate level cannot be underemphasized. It is my observation that the focus on broader impacts within the NSF review criteria has had a profound effect in making k-12 and undergraduate education, as well as community outreach, legitimate activities within the research community. In specific, the availability of NSF funds for work on undergraduate education has been critical in raising the value placed by faculty and institutions on this type of work.
The TUES program (formerly CCLI) is a primary vehicle for work to improve undergraduate instruction both for small collaborating groups of faculty and at the national scale. The program is well designed for this. It provides flexible opportunities for collaboration, emphasizes assessment of the resources and methods that are developed, and promotes scale-up and dissemination. The small TUES grants (Phase 1) are in my experience a critical engine for innovation in undergraduate education, as much because they build an expectation of and experience with experimentation and evaluation in instruction, as for the products they produce. An undervalued aspect of this program is its role in developing community leaders for educational efforts: PIs can enter at a small scale, gain experience and move on to leading larger efforts either campus based or nationally.
The President could help by advocating for increases in funding for grants supporting improvement in undergraduate STEM instruction broadly. NSF grants (and presumably those from other federal agencies supporting scientific research) are particularly important because of the role they play in shaping the values of the scientific community and the feedbacks between the roles of faculty as scientists, educators of future scientists and teachers, and educators/citizens raising the public understanding of science. This interplay was part of the original rational for establishment of NSF as a mechanism for integrating research and education, a strategy that has served our nation very well in creating the strongest graduate programs in the world.

What would you have said?

What could the President do? --Discussion  

Hi Cathy,

I think it is very insightful of you to recognize that science progresses by "sharing knowledge, building on the work of others, and synthesizing its collective work into higher levels of understanding that can underpin the next generation of practice" and that therefore this model would work for faculty professional development in college science education. A widespread stereotype is that scientists are nerds with poor people skills and thus it is far from obvious that collaboration and sharing would turn out to be so important for this group. This is a valuable insight to have shared with PCAST.

What would I have said? I might have mentioned the heavy debt burden that students and families are taking on these days for college expenses. Government support for student loans could be offered on more favorable terms for students who excel in STEM majors--this would signal in a concrete way that the nation values this expertise, and might attract more students to these fields.


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