UA One of Only Eight Institutions Selected for Nationwide STEM Initiative

June 25, 2013

The University of Arizona is one of only eight institutions in the nation to be selected and funded under a major, nationwide initiative designed to greatly enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Aimed at addressing the nationwide demand to improve education, retain more majors and expand the workforce in STEM, the Association of American Universities (AAU) announced the eight project sites of the STEM Undergraduate Education Initiative, which is funded by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

“The award recognizes our university's commitment to improve STEM undergraduate education by promoting and supporting the application of evidence-based teaching practices,” said Vicente Talanquer, co-principal investigator on the UA grant. 

Under the initiative, the UA has established the UA AAU STEM Project, a comprehensive, interdisciplinary effort that significantly will expand STEM-related collaborative enterprises, curricula and funding opportunities.

“Selection as an AAU STEM Project Site is a great honor that will facilitate UA interaction with other AAU institutions for improvement in STEM teaching and learning,” said Gail D. Burd, UA vice provost for academic affairs and principal investigator on the UA grant.

“We have a strong collaborative team of faculty and administrators who have been working together for the last year. Our proposal is exciting, with strong elements for improvements in STEM teaching and learning,” said Burd, also a UA Distinguished Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

The nationwide initiative is intended to support major cultural shifts in STEM education at the UA and elsewhere.

“This national initiative recognizes not only the commitment and leadership of the UA in the efforts to improve the quality of the STEM education that we offer, but also the strength, quality and commitment of the STEM educators working at our university,” said Talanquer, a professor in the UA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

The UA AAU STEM Project will be funded through 2016. Among other efforts, the project will result in:

  • The redesign of three foundational STEM courses (general chemistry, introductory biology and introductory physics/mechanics) and two additional courses (elements of chemical engineering II and also computer programming for engineering applications) with support from the UA Office of Instruction and Assessment, reaching thousands of students each year. The courses are being revised to include more active learning approaches and student-centered learning opportunities.
  • The creation of instructional development teams, whose members will develop course materials and interactive web-based resources.
  • The creation of Faculty Learning Communities (FLCs) to analyze the effectiveness of evidence-based STEM undergraduate teaching and learning at the UA.
  • New professional development opportunities for faculty, including an annual workshop and a teaching symposium in the third year of funding. 
  • The creation and expansion of teaching awards that will provide funding to tenure and non-tenured faculty recognized for successful evidence-based teaching practices.
  • The hiring of a new postdoctoral fellow who will focus on program assessment.
  • Evaluations of student learning and course effectiveness to inform the improvement or further development of teaching practices and strategies internal and external to the UA.
  • Several existing UA facilities will be modified to enhance teaching and learning environments.

The AAU is an association of 60 U.S. and two Canadian research universities organized to develop and implement effective national and institutional policies supporting research and scholarship, graduate and professional education, undergraduate education and public service in research universities.

The association, as well as other organizations and government agencies, continually have affirmed the need for investing in STEM education, as well as the related workforce sectors, for the benefit of national security, competitiveness, creativity and innovation.

Indeed, many at the UA are invested in the same national ideals driving increased support for STEM education, emphasizing that institutional and community-based support, interaction and action are required for successful educational reform in STEM.

“The UA is home to several thriving groups of STEM educators, but many of the teaching innovations that have been developed are restricted to individuals or small teaching teams, or are somewhat isolated within disciplinary departments or even within particular courses,” said Lisa Elfring, also a co-principal investigator on the UA grant and an associate professor of molecular and cellular biology and also chemistry and biochemistry.

Talanquer added that evidence-based teaching practices, coupled with collaborative teaching, could ensure UA students gain the skills and experiences necessary to be successful beyond higher education.

In fact, the courses being redesigned will rely on active learning and student-centered practice to enhance both discipline-based knowledge and practical understandings of STEM so that students leave not merely with a theoretical foundation, but also skills for applying what they learn.

“These types of teaching practices focus on developing students' conceptual understanding in their areas of study and 21st century skills,” Talanquer said.

Elfring also emphasized the importance of the community-building aspects of the new project, which will be mediated through the interdisciplinary FLCs.

“I believe the most important aspect of the project is really to help the UA build a community in which the majority of STEM educators are aware of research-based teaching strategies and have the resources and creative space to try them out in their own teaching."