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University of Arizona leads charge on K-16 STEM reform

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  • La Monica Everett-Haynes/University of Arizona


Indicative of the STEM education focus at the University of Arizona, new initiatives and programs are aligned with statewide and national priorities to expand the numbers of students choosing such careers.

Some of the most pervasive grand challenges likely to remain future concerns include water shortages and lack of access to clean water, the need for more resilient and reliable food systems, wildly fluctuating climate conditions, cybersecurity threats and the demand for improved personalized medicine.

University of Arizona leads charge on K-16 STEM reform UASTEMMain

The University of Arizona has expanded its investment in STEM education, which is aligned with statewide and national priorities to expand STEM education for the benefit of improving U.S. economic growth and international competitiveness. (Photo courtesy University of Arizona)

In each case, specialists in the high-demand fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, are being called upon for solutions.

Attentive to such concerns, and under the charge of the campuswide “Never Settle” strategic plan, the University of Arizona has introduced new initiatives and programs to reform STEM education at the K-12 and higher-education level and to drive more students to the STEM fields.

“We are working on STEM education reform,” said Gail Burd, UA senior vice provost for academic affairs. “This is a movement.”

The enhanced investment is aligned with statewide and national priorities to expand STEM education for the benefit of improving U.S. economic growth and international competitiveness.

A boon to the UA’s efforts came early last year when the University was named among a small group of U.S. institutions to be funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust under a major, nationwide Association of American Universities initiative designed to redefine STEM education.

Since the grant announcement, the University established the UA AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Project, a comprehensive, interdisciplinary effort to significantly expand STEM-related collaborative enterprises, curricula and funding opportunities.

Under the project, UA faculty have redesigned foundational STEM courses, introduced new methods of teaching, expanded professional development and introduced more active-learning opportunities for students.

Instead of memorization, UA faculty are focusing on experiences that encourage analytical thinking and collaborative learning.

“It is easy to say, ‘Read this book,’ and put together a PowerPoint, then blather on. But we know that the student learns better when actively engaged,” Burd said. “Thousands of studies have shown that, so we are trying to increase the coalition of the willing — those who are more involved in active engagement in the classroom.”

University of Arizona leads charge on K-16 STEM reform UASTEM2

The University of Arizona’s Active Learning Workshop taught instructors ways to employ interactive teaching techniques to encourage student engagement, motivation and critical thinking. (Photo courtesy of Jane Hunter/UA AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Project)

In this way, students more readily practice thinking as scientists, which makes a STEM career appear all the more viable, Burd said.

“UA faculty have been working in STEM education reform for quite some time and are very much involved in pushing the envelope in the ways that we engage our students,” said Burd, also the principal investigator on the UA’s AAU grant. “There is a significant amount of data indicating that reformed courses with active-learning pedagogies benefit all students.”

To further enhance the classroom environment, the UA this fall launched the Science-Engineering Library Collaborative Learning Space, an experimental pilot project.

The space, which faculty members are testing with plans to develop in other areas across campus, encourages a learner-centered orientation and interactivity, such as project-based learning, research and analysis, knowledge sharing, presentations and peer-to-peer interaction.

“One of the things we know is that pedagogy will change often, so space has to be adaptable to allow for changes in pedagogy, in methods and in learning,” said architect Andrew Labov of CO Architects, a partner involved in the development of learning spaces at the UA. “The space needs to be flexible to accommodate different types of teaching and learning.”

In that regard, the UA is taking a multilevel approach to improving STEM education, improving the way faculty teach, how students are engaged, and how classrooms are oriented to encourage interactivity.

Also, through the STEM Center directed by Bruce Johnson and Chris Impey, the UA is advancing K-16 STEM education in a divergent range of domains: at the national, state and local levels, and in partnership with schools, organizations, and business and industry.

For example, the UA is a member of 100Kin10, a nationwide initiative launched by the Obama administration to train 100,000 STEM teachers over a decade. The STEM Learning Center, which is working to align institutional initiatives with regional and national priorities, is directly involved with the initiative.

Statewide, the UA is a key member of the Arizona STEM Network, a strategic collaboration led by Science Foundation Arizona that involves schools, government agencies, organizations, businesses, donors and others in building a STEM education infrastructure.

Recently, the UA hosted the Active Learning Workshop, which was facilitated by Edward Prather, executive director for the Center for Astronomy Education and an associate professor of astronomy. The workshop taught instructors ways to employ interactive teaching techniques to encourage student engagement, motivation and critical thinking.

And on campus, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium, the Arizona Space Grant Consortium, the Undergraduate Biology Research Program, the Women in Science and Engineering program and Maximizing Access to Research Careers Program are among those training students toward STEM careers. Collectively, such programs prepare students through mentoring, networking, original research, internships, professional development and other opportunities.

“Young children are naturally scientific — children want to see how things work,” Burd said. “We need to think about what students need, and we need to maintain their interests in STEM all the way through.”

With programs that support K-12 students through higher education, and working in tandem with industry partners, the UA is not only building a pipeline for STEM careers but also energizing a community of STEM advocates, Burd said.

Camille Runge, who toured 15 universities before deciding to studying chemical engineering at the UA, makes an astute observation: The mere presence of STEM-focused programs is not enough. At the UA, there exists a long-standing and growing culture of support around undergraduate research, especially in the STEM fields, which is complemented by an institutional priority to engage the entire student population in at least one active, career-minded experience.

In fact, it was the UA’s active-learning environment and the institutional emphasis on student engagement, along with the stature of the UA faculty, that landed her in Tucson, Runge said. That is reflective of the “movement” Burd mentioned.

“The faculty, professors and advisers at UA were by far the most invested in the future of their students,” said Runge, a UA Honors College student who plans to work in the pharmaceutical field.

“They all truly care about each student on an individual level, and it was clear they would go out of their way to make sure each student is successful. I loved the environment on campus. And being part of the Honors College, I feel as though I have more opportunities to push my boundaries.”