Dr. Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

EnFUSE Symposium Explores Effective Transformation Approaches

The National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education and the American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted Envisioning the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education (EnFUSE): Research and Practice symposium April 27-29 in Washington, DC. The program “highlighted the research, findings, and effective practices of NSF grantees” from programs across DUE, including the SENCER and Engaging Mathematics initiatives.

Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director in NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate, introduced the opening speaker, Dr. Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Ferrini-Mundy drew attention to this year’s change in having a thematic meeting. Dr. Handelsman focused on White House efforts to attain 1 million STEM graduates that reflect the demographics of US colleges and universities by 2022, and training 100,000 excellent K-12 STEM teachers (100K in 10). Regarding ‘STEM for All,’ an initiative to “expand STEM education and employment opportunities for all students,” the points she highlighted are very well correlated with the work of the SENCER community, with focus on (1) changing teaching practices to active learning, (2) including relevant content (socially related) in courses, (3) involve K-12 partners, and (4) reduce bias, both explicit and implicit. The prevalence of implicit bias and how to resolve the impacts of it became a thread through the following talks and breakout sessions. She quoted a phrase from the President’s speech during the White House Science Fair, “diversity is our strength.” This was referenced throughout the rest of the symposium. Handelsman noted that the White House is especially interested in active learning in research courses, and the integration of undergraduate research. She discussed some of the ‘levers’ people may have close to them that can be used to help activate needed change; including the fact that graduate students and postdocs want training on how to teach more effectively, which can ‘trickle up’ to their professors and advisors; influence by peers in a department can push others to explore new methods; curiosity of some educators may open them to experimentation; and data on outcomes may persuade. Finally, Handelsman noted the moral imperative to use active learning as research overwhelmingly supports the effectiveness of the practice as opposed to lecturing.

On the morning of April 28th, Jim Lewis, deputy assistant director in the Education and Human Resources Directorate, provided an overview of NSF, including that they have received 50,000 proposals over the past year and funded 12,000. The agency priorities he cited were (1) learning and the learning environment, (2) broadening participation (as a solution) and institutional capacity, and (3) the professional STEM workforce. He noted that INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) is based on collective impact. Myles Boylan, lead program director, provided a historical overview of NSF education programs, from the impact of the closure of educational programs of NSF in 1981 to the publication of ‘A Nation at Risk: An Imperative for Educational Reform‘ (1983), and the impact of Erich Bloch’s term as NSF director, which began in 1984. Boylan also cited Mel George’s work and the Boyer Commission, and both opened and closed by saying that he and colleagues believe they are close to a tipping point in achieving a transition to significantly more effective educational practices.

A breakout session on ‘Understanding the Engineering Education-Workforce Continuum’ was co-led by Gary Halada, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stony Brook University and a SENCER Leadership Fellow. Halada discussed his grant to conduct energy education in multi-institutional settings. Goals included the establishment of certificates (at two-year institutions) and minors (at four-year institutions) in energy education, partnerships with industry, the development of distance learning options, diverse enrollment, and faculty development opportunities. The project emerged from ‘conversations in the disciplines’ by SUNY and included a focus on systems theory. One of the most challenging parts of the project as it evolved was having courses held at one institution accepted for credit at a partner institution. Through the grant, minors were initiated at Stony Brook and New York Institute of Technology, online courses were launched at New York Institute of Technology and Nassau Community College, and an electronic portfolio system has been used to positive effect.

The lunch plenary on Thursday was delivered by Robert Weiner, the senior project director for the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. He spoke about the Cottrell Scholars program, which supports early career faculty with innovative ideas to engage with disciplinary based educational research and the use of new technology. Scholars are also focused on learning outcomes. The evening plenary was a cross-NSF panel focused on the STEM workforce, including assistant directors and officers from Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences; Geosciences; Engineering; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Mathematical and Physical Sciences; and Biological Sciences. In addition to touching on points particular to each program, officers discussed the agency wide goals of public participation in science, broadening participation, opportunities for underserved populations, and effectively scaling successful projects.

Myles Boylan also led a breakout session on institutional and community transformation during the Program Director Session Track. The session was primarily a series of group discussions, but there were a few points of presentation at the beginning, including that the review panels are interested in the number and quality of publications emerging from earlier work. SENCER’s long record of issuing subgrants that lead to significant impact on college campuses around the country was mentioned. From the group discussions, barriers to innovations cited were lack of communication between faculty and administrators, narrow sense of professional identity by some educators, the misconception that teaching expertise is static (no need to learn), lack of trust in colleagues, lack of trust in the evidence supporting active learning, lack of sense of shared responsibility for student learning, and the challenge of broadening participation.

The closing plenary was a conversation between Myles Boylan and Linda Slakey reflecting on the overall EnFUSE symposium. Shirley Malcom introduced Boylan and Slakey, and as she did, cited the systemic approach needed to advance student-centered learning, including the role of professional societies in building sustainable communities and contributing to thought leadership. Slakey noted that she noticed more nuanced questions than a few years ago, and that there is clearly a shared goal in applying practices that draw in students and support their learning in line with research on how people learn. Boylan mentioned a balance on topics within the EnFUSE program (referencing specifically institutional transformation, technology use in higher education, assessment and evaluation, and broadening participation). They referenced again the proximity of a tipping point but also noted the need to make the knowledge of what is effective more accessible to all. Challenges educators face when implementing innovative strategies include expected learning gains not appearing quickly, pushback from students to new course structures (as David Burns has often mentioned in his Institute addresses and articles), and attachment to lecture only teaching by other educators despite knowledge of active learning approaches. Boylan and Slakey cited the communities of transformation research emerging from Adrianna Kezar and Sean Gehrke’s work and highlighted projects, including SENCER, as an example. The later part of the discussion moved to a brief exploration of theories of change and early vs. late adopters, as well the implications for appealing to people in each group at a given institution in the context of the challenges that informed the themes of the symposium.

For more information on the Symposium, please visit the site.

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