Teaching differently in basic STEM courses


Faculty and staff at Penn recently received a boost in revamping the typical auditorium lecture-style undergraduate classroom experience.

The University has been named a project site for the Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, a multiyear, multimillion dollar project that aims to improve the quality of education in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. Developed by the Association of American Universities (AAU) in 2011, the project called for proposals from member universities, looking for those best able to demonstrate the effectiveness of evidence-based teaching practices in these disciplines.

“The whole idea is to use the time that undergraduate students spend in class differently in basic STEM courses,” says Dennis DeTurck, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, who is spearheading the project at Penn alongside Beth Winkelstein, associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The AAU initiative received a three-year, $4.7 million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, which has enabled the organization to develop the framework for the initiative and provide $500,000 to each of eight project sites. Leveraging its Open Learning Initiative and its Center for Teaching and Learning, Penn will implement its proposal as one of these sites during the next three years.

“It’s about students getting guidance from faculty early on rather than having someone talk at them,” DeTurck says.

The first of the project’s three core components is to leverage Penn’s experience with online learning, following the model of the Penn Coursera class “Calculus: Single Variable” taught by Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Robert Ghrist.

The “Calculus: Single Variable” version of Math 104 will serve as one in a handful of “gateway” classes, which will adopt some of the innovative teaching practices geared to prepare undergraduates for further advanced study.

Another goal of the project is to better retain students from underrepresented groups in the sciences, such as women and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds—groups that have been proven to perform better when taught through active methods proposed in the revised “gateway” courses.

“We’ll get a chance to track the students to see if we can detect actual differences in the ultimate outcomes,” DeTurck says.

The project also intends to engage faculty and staff in rethinking undergraduate STEM education—a goal Winkelstein says is already afloat in the initiative’s early stages.

STEM Women

"A large part of what has made this so exciting is that the faculty had already been invested in changing student education,” Winkelstein says. “The grant and organizational resource, especially the key collaboration between the faculty across schools and with the Center for Teaching and Learning, will help further make the connections and solidify those already in place.”

DeTurck says a Provost Classroom Committee has begun looking at spaces around campus to assess classrooms that could be converted to better fit the initiative’s style of teaching.

“For a science or math lecture, typically you have an auditorium with a big projector and stadium seating, with students facing the front of the room,” DeTurck says. “That’s great for a lecture, but to further engage students, we could need sizable rooms with flat floors, set up in a way that looks more like a banquet than a classroom.”

Winkelstein says the project has already engaged as many as 30 faculty members from departments including math, chemistry, physics, bioengineering, materials science, and engineering. A working group of faculty from outside basic STEM disciplines—including economics and Earth and environmental science—is also exploring the possibility of incorporating some of the project’s teaching methods.

“Anyone in these disciplines wants their students to see the depth of that discipline in the application of the foundational aspects as early as possible,” Winkelstein says. “Students can ‘get it’ in their first year, but we [as faculty] need to help them do that. And how do we have students love whatever they are studying? It’s by being actively engaged in that discipline.”

Originally published on July 18, 2013