- Designing for Success in STEM Communities of Practice: Philosophy and Personal Interactions
For the past 20 years, countless reports have been issued calling for reform of undergraduate education to improve student learning, persistence, and graduation rates for students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors. However, by many measures, recommendations in these reports have not been widely implemented (Borrego, Froyd, & Hall 2010; Fairweather 2009; Handelsman et al. 2004; Seymour 2002). The most recent report from the President’s Office of Science and Technology states that STEM graduation rates will have to increase annually by 34% to meet the goal of producing one million additional college graduates in STEM (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). These additional graduates are needed to fulfill the increasing job market demands for individuals educated in STEM fields. [End Page 217]
Yet, even with this demand, we have consistent data that shows STEM majors are not retained, often due to poor instruction (Henderson, Beach, & Finkelstein, 2011). And relatedly, a meta-analysis by Freeman and colleagues (2014) conducted of recent science education research papers conclusively confirms that by using active learning strategies as opposed to traditional lecture, student exam scores increase and failure rates drop dramatically. As a result, most recent reports reiterate the need to focus on creating more student-centered learning environments that use the most effective research-based teaching, learning, and assessment strategies to promote student success (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011; Association of American Medical Colleges-Howard Hughes Medical Institute Committee, 2012).
While we have knowledge of what changes are needed, systemic change in higher education has proven difficult. Isolated efforts (i.e., funding a short, one-time effort) have not proven effective at yielding widespread organizational change because colleges and universities are complex systems wherein multiple factors influence faculty actions, values, and behaviors (Kezar, 2011). Given the size and scale of higher education, changing individual faculty members or even isolated departments will have minimal impact. Fairweather (2009) in his report to the National Academies Research Council Board of Science Education noted that the presumption that funding individual innovations will lead to widespread changes is spurious and does not bear out in evidence. Instead, he notes that networks systematically engage large numbers of faculty on an on-going and sustained basis, which is more likely to lead to change. Also, in a recent review article commissioned by the National Academies, Austin (2011) outlines the factors that need to be addressed in order to promulgate more evidence-based teaching practices. Among the top factors is professional development that involves communities of practice that “provide opportunities for faculty members to interact with others as they explore new assumptions and try out new approaches to teaching…in an environment that simultaneously provides challenge and support” (p. 13).
Institutional, regional, and national communities that are focused on providing knowledge, support, and exemplary models for STEM education have been identified in reports as important vehicles for creating changes, yet there is little systematic research on these communities. STEM communities of practice that exist at the national and regional level involve thousands of faculty. They host events, have publications such as newsletters, resources such as curricular modules, and provide on-going networking opportunities for the faculty who participate. Newsletters, events such as regional network meetings, and other areas are often free, but they often charge for publications, curricular resources, and major events. In this study we examined four national communities of practice (CoPs) developed to scale up STEM pedagogical reform efforts that involve between 2,000 and 7,000 faculty each. We [End Page 218] choose these CoPs because they are long-standing and have been considered successful in the STEM reform community. In terms of determining success on the outset (before we ourselves studied their outcomes), we used the following criteria: 1. Published research about the efficacy of their approaches; 2. Research and case studies about classroom changes and impact on student outcomes—collected by CoPs from individual faculty or institutions; 3. Number of faculty who participate over time; 4. Reports and case studies about departmental or institutional changes...