NEW: Brown Chosen As STEM Project Site For National Initiative

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


View Larger +

The “Phage Hunters” course at Brown gives first-year students a chance to find, name, and analyze the DNA of undiscovered viruses. “This is how science operates,” said Prof. Peter Shank, with student Alex Hadick. The hope is to hook students early. Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

The Association of American Universities (AAU) has chosen Brown University as a project site for an initiative to improve undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Brown is one of eight AAU member institutions chosen to implement the initiative, which is designed to encourage STEM departments to adopt proven, evidence-based teaching practices and to provide faculty with the encouragement, training, and support to do so.

“Brown has a rich history of innovation in teaching and a collegial faculty willing to share their best ideas with each other,” said Katherine Bergeron, dean of the College at Brown. “Those strengths make Brown an ideal place to contribute to a national conversation about how to transform the teaching of college science.”

A national STEM network

In addition to the project sites, AAU will create a STEM network in which it expects most or all of its 62 universities to participate. The network will enable faculty and administrators at AAU institutions to share best practices developed at Brown and at other project sites and campuses. The eight project sites were chosen from among 31 AAU universities that submitted concept papers. Papers were assessed on a number of criteria, including the degree of faculty engagement, institutional commitment, likelihood of sustained organizational change, and commitment to evaluation and assessment.

Brown’s three-year plan will start with a rethinking of STEM classes for first- and second-year students, starting with seven classes in physics, engineering and neuroscience. These classes represent crucial gateways to further study in the STEM disciplines for more than 800 Brown students who take them each year. Making sure students become engaged in these classes and learn effectively is a key to recruiting and retaining students in STEM fields. In the plan’s second and third years, practices developed in these classes will be expanded to other classes and disciplines.

“We have an increasing number of students coming in with an active interest in physical sciences and engineering,” Bergeron said. “We’re more concerned than ever about addressing learning gaps early so students can persist in these disciplines.”

New curricula

Faculty and graduate students will work with Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning and the Brown Science Center to develop new curricula that emphasize hands-on learning, group problem solving, and opportunities for original research. Science faculty will also work with faculty in Brown’s math departments to identify gaps in students’ math skills that could discourage them from further study.

“We’re looking at basic math skills that students may have learned, but have a hard time applying to questions in science,” Bergeron said. “We want to make sure that knowledge is transferred across the disciplines, from math classrooms to science classrooms. Because of the collaborative spirit among our faculty and the open curriculum, Brown is uniquely positioned for that kind of cross-disciplinary effort.”

The AAU will support the initiative with $500,000 in seed money for each project site, and Brown will provide matching funds for its plan, bringing total funding at Brown to $1 million. The money will fund curriculum development grants to faculty members, support graduate students to help in modifying curricula, and provide for a rigorous assessment of the program’s effectiveness.

“The support structure is one of the most important aspects of the project,” said James Valles, professor and chair of Brown’s physics department. “We’re asking faculty to step outside their comfort zones and take some chances, and they need to know that they’re supported in doing so.” David Targan, associate dean of the College for science education and director of the Brown Science Center, says he’s pleased with the way faculty have responded to the project so far. Nearly 30 faculty members, including five department chairs, are now engaged in the project, with more expected to come on board as the project unfolds. “They’ve been very responsive,” Targan said. “They brought a number of innovative ideas to the conversation, things they had been thinking about before we ever approached them.”

An ongoing conversation at Brown

“This is a conversation that started several years ago at Brown,” Bergeron said. “It’s part of a steady set of initiatives that we have undertaken, including the creation of the Science Center, School of Engineering, and School of Public Health. This grant comes at a critical time in our strategic planning, when we want to focus attention on something Brown has long been known for, which is innovation in education.”

The AAU initiative, which was launched in 2011, received a three-year, $4.7 million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust last October that has enabled the association to develop the initiative framework and provide seed money to each project site.


Enjoy this post? Share it with others.


Sign Up for the Daily Eblast

I want to follow on Twitter

I want to Like on Facebook


Stay Connected — Free
Daily Email