Research shows that there’s a narrow funnel to success in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. But as today’s faculty reveal, these trends unfortunately aren’t new. Your colleagues reflect on how the lack of engagement and pervasive ‘weed out’ culture has only ignited them to drive meaningful change in their discipline. Read on to see how these six innovative instructors have made teaching more equitable and effective for students today.
This is part two in a two-part series on STEM student success. For a look at the learning barriers that STEM faculty faced in their own education, check out part one here.
The mission: Make learning equitable and empowering
Remind students that learning happens through struggle
You may have seen it in your own classroom: when students are confronted with a challenging problem, they’re likely to Google the answer versus struggling for 20 minutes. “Students are trained to just look up answers and they think this is learning. We need to stop outsourcing their learning and put it right back inside their head. That’s why I flipped my classroom,” says Stephanie Dillon, Director of Freshman Chemistry Labs at Florida State University. She now relies on Top Hat to host recorded lectures and quizzes that students complete before class. During lectures, Dillon administers countless practice problems run via Aktiv’s intuitive and visual-heavy platform. Not only are her chemistry students more engaged, they are given the guided instructional feedback necessary to identify their own misconceptions in the moment.
Underscore equity where possible
As many STEM educators recognize today, equity can’t just be a buzzword. It must be woven into the fabric of any course. “We have to do our best to serve underserved communities. So it’s not just about equality or equity, it’s actually justice,” says Angela Seliga, Physiology Laboratory Manager at Boston University. Faculty also remind us that embracing equity in the classroom may involve offering a highly personalized learning experience to individual students. “Equity involves equal empowerment, which may mean differentiated resources,” shares Lourdes Norman-McKay, Professor of Biological Sciences at Florida State College at Jacksonville. You might follow her blueprint for equitable group exercises by intentionally assigning members from diverse backgrounds into small groups. “The best problem solving happens with diverse teams because of broader perspective, based on gender, identity, race, ethnicity, age. Start with yourself as a role model and establish that culture of acceptance and support,” she says.
Taking an equity-minded route to course delivery doesn’t mean letting go of all course standards. In fact, John Redden, Associate Professor-in-Residence in the Physiology and Neurobiology department at the University of Connecticut, advocates for the opposite—with an asterisk. “Giving students complete control—for instance, not having any deadlines or assignments—often works against them. Having some course structure is important for inclusive teaching,” he says. Instead, Redden uses a pedagogy known as democratic course management where he lets students customize their grade weights, so long as they cumulatively add up to 100 percent, all in the name of autonomy and trust.
Help students see one another as teammates, not competitors
Students may enter your course with different goals and backgrounds. But as faculty reiterate, your role isn’t to pit students against one another. It’s to help them build each other up. “I tell my students they’re not there to compete against one another. They’re there to help one another, like ‘this is how I did this question.’ Aktiv allows that to happen,” says Daniel Collins, Instructional Associate Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M University. Faculty like Beverly Kris Jaeger-Helton, Teaching Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University, also rely on collaboration to give students the confidence they need to solve complex problems. “I give students an opportunity to self-discover during learning and then bring their findings to a team. This often leads to richer and more thoughtful responses,” she shares.
Students may wince when they hear the term ‘group work.’ But in a highly structured environment, collaborative activities can be just as fulfilling, if not more, than solo reflection. “When students are in teams, I ask their preference to work on the weekends, if they’re the type to hand in work early or closer to the deadline. Then we assign them teams based on the answers on this assignment,” says Seliga. She goes one step further by ensuring students forge open communication among their groups from the get-go. “They do a contract together where it lays out our expectations for them as a team and questions we at least want them to talk about as a team,” she shares.
Watch the video below to see how your peers are promoting equity and engagement in STEM. You can also read more from these six educators in part one of our series on STEM learning challenges.