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Research Universities: Working to Improve Undergraduate STEM Education

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September 20th, 2011
By Hunter R. Rawlings III, President, Association of American Universities (AAU)

Two out of five entering college freshmen who plan to major in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields switch to non-STEM majors by the time they graduate, according to research; in addition, completion rates for STEM majors are lower than for non-STEM majors. Given this gap in the STEM pipeline, and the serious impact it has on our nation, the Association of American Universities (AAU) last week launched a five-year initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning in STEM fields at our member institutions.

AAU and its institutions have long worked on improving STEM education. In the late 1990s, AAU’s Committee on Undergraduate Education established a K-16 Taskforce, which led to a collaboration with The Pew Charitable Trusts that produced Standards for Success. This $2.4 million project was designed to improve the academic preparation of college-bound students by aligning university admissions with state high school standards and assessments. This new initiative will build upon our prior efforts, specifically targeting STEM teaching and learning during the first two years of college.

Research universities have been criticized for underemphasizing undergraduate STEM teaching. Perhaps the strongest such critique came from the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, which issued a report in 1998 titled “Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities.” Our universities have worked hard to address the concerns described in the Boyer report, but there is still more that can and must be done.

In advance of launching this initiative, AAU surveyed our member institutions, asking them to identify innovative courses, pedagogical methodologies, and other university programs aimed at retaining undergraduate students in STEM majors. Not surprisingly, we found numerous programs already underway at our institutions. Often, the hallmark of these initiatives is their ability to produce greater student engagement and deeper understanding of critical concepts in these disciplines. The programs range from those seeking to involve undergraduates in research, to residential programs where STEM students live and study together, to programs aimed at helping faculty and graduate students more effectively teach STEM courses. One of the first projects of our new initiative will be producing a resource booklet to summarize and highlight some of these programs. Our hope is that we can share these efforts across our campuses to fuel innovation, collaboration, and replication of successful programs.

We need, however, to accelerate the process of reform. In recent years, researchers have learned a great deal about the most effective methods of teaching STEM subjects, and a number of our universities are already leading the way in developing and implementing these new ways of teaching. The cornerstone of AAU’s initiative is developing an analytical framework for assessing and improving the quality of STEM teaching and learning, then implementing it through a demonstration project. To aid us in our efforts, we have created a technical advisory committee comprised of experts knowledgeable in these areas. We will also work closely with other associations already engaged in efforts to improve STEM education, including the Business-Higher Education Forum and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. By working together in a coordinated fashion, higher education associations, individual universities, disciplinary societies, federal agencies, and the business community can bring about major improvements in STEM education and retention at all levels.


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