UA Paves Way to Redefine STEM Education
The UA is making progress on course redesigns and faculty programs intended to make STEM education more engaging.

By Alexis Blue, University Relations - Communications
Sept. 9, 2014

The University of Arizona is helping to enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, as one of just eight sites in the United States chosen to participate in a major national STEM education initiative.

In June 2013, the Association of American Universities announced that the UA and seven other project sites would receive grant funding through the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, which was established to address a nationwide demand to improve STEM education and to retain more majors and expand the workforce in STEM fields.

Since then, the UA has made important progress with course redesigns and faculty programs intended to make STEM teaching and learning more engaging. 

"We need more STEM majors," said Gail Burd, UA senior vice provost for academic affairs and a principal investigator on the UA's AAU grant. "A lot of evidence points to a loss of students from STEM majors because of the way they're being taught. These are hard subjects, and if it's not engaging and it's hard, students drift away."

Under the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, which is funded by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the UA established the UA-AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Project — a comprehensive, interdisciplinary effort intended to expand STEM-related collaborations, curricula and funding opportunities.

Funded through 2016, the UA-AAU STEM Project saw a number of successes in its first year.

Course redesigns promote active learning

Under the leadership of John Pollard, the UA's director of general chemistry, and Vicente A. Talanquer, a chemistry and biochemistry professor, a foundational UA chemistry course has been restructured to more actively engage students.

The redesigned  "Chemical Thinking" course, in development for three years, debuted this fall to more than 2,400 students in general chemistry, course 151. It incorporates more group-based discussions, problem-solving activities and other forms of active engagement, with less than 10 minutes of the hourlong class devoted to traditional lecture.

Students in an earlier pilot of the course reported better information retention and overall satisfaction with the redesigned course compared to traditional chemistry classes. This fall, four additional instructors are teaching general chemistry using the revamped curriculum for the first time.

"We are working to understand challenges and successes these new faculty might have to implementing the new curriculum with more active and engaged instructional approaches," Burd said.

Modeled after the chemistry course's success, a similar redesign is being introduced in a foundational UA biology class this semester. Meanwhile, the University's introductory course in computer programming for engineering applications has been restructured to include lab time and to emphasize student participation.

New instructional approaches also were introduced in a pilot general physics course last spring, with students reporting positive results in learning outcomes. A redesign also is in the works for the UA's introductory chemical engineering course.

Learning communities, workshops encourage teaching differently

As part of the effort to make STEM classes more engaging, the University has launched professional development opportunities intended to get instructors to think about teaching in new ways.

About 30 STEM faculty members participated in Faculty Learning Communities last year, in which they were tasked to come up with two weeklong engagement activities to teach in their classrooms each semester.

The University also launched a series of "Teaching Talks" and a three-hour workshop, specifically geared toward STEM educators on campus.

"The goal is to stretch beyond those five redesigned introductory courses and change the culture around the way we're teaching all STEM courses," Burd said.

Additional workshops and talks will take place in the coming year, including a daylong workshop with an architect and an expert on learning spaces that will look at how faculty can make the best use of physical spaces to make them more engaging. 

As part of that workshop, Pollard will spend a week or two teaching in a nontraditional space — a redesigned journal reading room in the Science and Engineering Library.

As the UA continues to forge new territory in STEM education, it is carefully tracking and analyzing its efforts to determine their effectiveness. Postdoctoral student Jonathan Cox is helping to lead that ongoing assessment, beginning with the redesigned general chemistry course, Burd said.  Jane Hunter, an associate professor of practice in the UA's Office of Instruction and Assessment, also has joined the AAU project to provide project support and management. 

Other goals for the UA-AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Project, Burd said, include establishing a teaching symposium and developing and expanding teaching awards that recognize and financially reward outstanding STEM educators on campus.

In addition to Burd, the UA-AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Project leaders include co-principal investigators Deb Tomanek, associate vice provost for instruction and assessment; Lisa Elfring, associate professor of molecular and cellular biology; and Vicente Talanquer, professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

The AAU is a nonprofit organization of 62 leading public and private research universities in the United States and Canada. The 60 AAU universities in the United States award more than half of all U.S. doctoral degrees and 55 percent of those in the sciences and engineering.