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Grant helps UCD boost STEM teaching

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From page A5 | July 09, 2013 |

UC Davis will further its work to improve teaching in the nationally important fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — including redesigning introductory courses that enroll thousands — as part of an Association of American Universities initiative announced last week.

UCD is one of eight universities each receiving $500,000 over three years through the AAU’s five-year initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate education and help retain students in STEM majors, especially those from historically underrepresented ethnic groups. The university is investing $575,000 in matching funds.

The AAU initiative has been made possible by a three-year, $4.7 million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

The UCD project and others respond to a 2012 report that called for 1 million more STEM graduates in the next decade. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said the additional STEM graduates are needed if the United States is to maintain pre-eminence in STEM fields — and gain the social, economic and national security benefits that come with it.

“UC Davis is proud of our commitment to STEM education,” said Ralph Hexter, provost and executive vice chancellor. “This project will enable us to better understand how our STEM students are learning at crucial moments in their degree programs and help us improve education for them and advance STEM education in the United States.”

Of nearly 25,500 undergraduates at UCD in 2012-13, about 14,600, or 57 percent, majored in STEM fields. Of the 6,738 bachelor’s degrees UCD conferred in 2011-12, 2,772, or more than 40 percent, were in STEM fields; the percentages for STEM degrees climb to 47 percent of master’s degrees and 70 percent of doctorates.

At UCD, the AAU project will be coordinated through the campus’s iAMSTEM Hub, established in August 2012 to foster evidenced-based teaching practices to improve STEM student success at the undergraduate level.

Focus on introductory courses

UCD will use the AAU funding to help redesign introductory courses in biology and chemistry, offer a new freshman course in engineering design and communications, and improve advising in engineering. The pilot project for introductory biology is set to begin this fall.

Overall, changes will focus on helping students see the relevance of course content to careers in the fields, offering customized online instruction and enriching discussion sections.

Retaining the students who enter STEM majors is an important strategy identified by the national advisory report. And the 2008 entering class at UCD demonstrates this: Of students from historically underrepresented ethnic groups (African-American, Native American and Chicano/Latino) who started in a STEM major, 54 percent, or 275 students, left STEM fields within four years; of those from historically represented groups who started in a STEM major, 36 percent, or 768 students, left STEM fields. Of all those who left STEM majors, more than one-third also left the university.

Marco Molinaro, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education with responsibility for iAMSTEM, serves as leader of the university’s AAU project. One of the problems with retaining STEM majors, he said, is that their studies cover basic material in the first two years and can seem removed from the experiences of a person working in the field.

Molinaro said lower-division courses tend to emphasize memorization instead of what have been identified as skills of the 21st century: critical thinking, analyzing data, communication, teamwork and the ability to work in a global context.

“If students don’t feel a sense of community, if they don’t feel they belong, if they don’t see the relevance of what they’re learning,” Molinaro said, “it’s hard for them to justify staying.”

Underpinning the AAU project and related work at UCD is an emphasis on encouraging innovative use of what is already known about teaching and learning in the STEM fields and data from the participating schools.

“There is research on how teaching and learning can be improved,” Molinaro said. “We want to encourage its use as well as conduct our own applied research in education,” he added.

In keeping with that goal, the UCD matching funds will provide $300,000 for six Provost’s Fellowships for Innovative Teaching, $30,000 for an annual conference about scholarship on teaching and learning, and $50,000 in iAMSTEM support in the third year of the grant.

Project highlights

Among the UCD projects:

* Beginning this fall, a pilot will flip elements of the introductory course for biology majors. As an introduction to material, students will complete online modules that will provide “adaptive learning” or additional, customized material where they need greater support.

Discussion sections will be used to apply concepts to solve novel and difficult problems related to big ideas in biology. Courses will continue to include classes with faculty lectures. About 600 students will participate in the pilot, and another 600 in traditional classes will serve as the control group.

* Also, this fall, UCD will launch a new engineering design and communications course to engage freshmen in the process of designing solutions to engineering-related problems for campus customers and members of the community. The pilot will involve 40 students.

* A special curricula task force will re-envision students’ introduction to chemistry. It will review admissions placement exams, remedial coursework, course consistency across sections, course testing and grading policies. The committee will develop pilot programs likely to include adaptive learning and peer learning communities.

The eight AAU project sites were chosen from among 31 submissions. The other seven are: Brown University, Michigan State University, University of Arizona, University of Colorado Boulder, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis.

— UC Davis News Service

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