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Professors Schul and Bush Lead Campus-Wide STEM Education Effort

Feb. 16, 2017

Johannes Schul and Sarah Bush

Professors Johannes Schul and Sarah Bush are leading a new AAU-funded project to enhance STEM undergraduate education at MU.

The University of Missouri is one of 12 universities to receive a grant from the Association of American Universities (AAU) to improve undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines.

Johannes Schul and Sarah Bush, both professors with the Division of Biological Sciences, are leading the new project. Schul and Bush have successfully redesigned biology courses using evidence-based teaching practices.

Schul said the $20,000 mini-grant will support faculty learning communities, departmental workshops, a symposium on STEM education reform, and visits with experts in STEM reform.

“This grant is an opportunity to build an infrastructure and a culture that encourages and supports efforts to reform courses, curriculum, and the classroom experiences of students in STEM fields at MU,” said Schul.

Faculty learning communities, for example, are formal groups of faculty who commit to a year-long process to improve a course. He described these communities as providing a “safety net” and support for faculty to investigate, attempt, assess, or adopt new teaching methods.

“It’s really difficult to change a course or do something new alone because you have no idea if or how something is going to work,” said Schul. “With a faculty learning community, you’re not alone. You have other people who have gone through the process to talk to, to bounce ideas off of, discuss problems and generate solutions.”

“Faculty learning communities will be a big step forward for our campus,” he added.

The grant is part of the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, originally announced in 2011, which supports national programs to enhance STEM education. The grants were made possible through a five-year, $1 million grant from the Northrop Grumman Foundation.

“AAU remains committed to improving the effectiveness of undergraduate STEM teaching and learning at research universities,” said AAU President Mary Sue Coleman in a press release announcing the awards. “We are excited to support innovative concepts to scale education reforms at our member campuses.”

Powered by Faculty and Science

The advent of new technologies, the growing complexity of data generated, advances in data science, and the increasing interdisciplinary nature of research have changed the day-to-day practice of science. Scientists are asking questions and using new approaches not possible even a decade ago. In response, a number of high-profile, national scientific agencies and organizations have called for widespread reform of undergraduate education in the STEM disciplines to keep pace with these changes.

In 2011, the American Association for the Advancement of Science called for sweeping changes to biology and life sciences curricula in a report titled “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action.” To better prepare students for the future scientific workforce, it recommended that undergraduate biology education be reorganized around a few key concepts and competencies, including a greater emphasis on quantitative and computational skills. It also recommended courses be more student-centered and engage students in the scientific process by providing authentic research experiences. The report also called for campus-wide commitment to change and the need to foster communities of scholars.

The new AAU-funded project brings together faculty on campus who are already implementing such reforms in their own courses and departments. Joining Schul and Bush on the project leadership team are Craig Kluever (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), Dorina Kosztin (Physics and Astronomy), James Noble (Industrial & Manufacturing Systems Engineering), Robert O’Connell (Electrical Engineering), Brenda Peculis (Biochemistry), Marcelle Siegel (Science Education, Biochemistry) and Alan Whittington (Geological Sciences).

“This is a faculty-driven effort,” said Bush. “The fact that a group of faculty volunteered to put this project together indicates the extent to which professors at MU care about the quality of undergraduate teaching. Although we’re very grateful for the support we’re receiving from administration, efforts like this are most successful when faculty themselves have identified a problem and are motivated on their own to address it.”

Brenda Peculis, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry, restructured the introductory course for biochemistry majors (BIOCHM 1090) to include more active learning strategies and to frame the concepts around real-world examples.

“While students still need to learn the fundamental principles, we package them within real-life examples to help them understand why these are important and why it matters and how it all works,” she said. “Students generally love the course and come back and say it really did prepare them for what was ahead – both in the way of material covered as well as the required study habits, time management, use of resources that are critical to success in college.”

Peculis said she is “very excited” about the new AAU-funded project and the possibilities it has to change STEM education on campus.

“Bringing people together to share ideas and support each other across departmental lines will immensely improve the quality of instruction across STEM disciplines,” she said.

Students in a lecture hall with their Fast Plants

Who says you can’t do experiments in lecture halls? The use of Wisconsin FastPlants to study selection of quantitative traits is one of the active learning strategies Schul uses in his evolution course.

Schul, who studies the evolution of communication in insects, redesigned the evolution course for majors (BIOSC 4600) in the Division of Biological Sciences to be more reflective of modern evolutionary science. He reorganized the content around five “big stories” of evolution that integrate biological levels of organization from molecules up through evolution and ecology. He also incorporated several active-learning strategies, such as activities developing computer models, producing videos, and group discussions.

He said equally important to the redesign of his own course – and to this new AAU-funded project – is to address diversity and inclusion in the classroom.

“The factors causing lower persistence and graduation rates of students from underrepresented minorities are a major concern to all STEM disciplines. Thus, any STEM curriculum reform must strive for inclusive excellence,” Schul said.

Schul said he hopes to take the approaches that have worked in his evolution course curriculum wide, starting with the introductory biology course for majors (BIOSC 1500).

“If we get data demonstrating that it works, then we’ll work to change the structure of the whole introductory sequences of courses to fit this format,” he said.

“We want to treat this as science, from having hypotheses that are based on literature, testing whether they work, work from your results, applying for funding with preliminary data, and building the next project on completed projects,” said Schul. “That is really another important point to get across about this new project – it’s about supporting and doing evidence-based reform.”

With the new AAU-funded project, curriculum or department-wide efforts, such as Schul’s, will benefit from Project Development Communities. Like Faculty Learning Communities, these will share a similar community structure but will be aimed at large projects, such as assessments or reforms of existing curriculum or new approaches to content.

“We’re totally excited about this project,” said Schul.

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Written by: Melody Kroll

Related categories:
Undergraduate Studies