University of Portland receives $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to foster systematic instructional change in STEM education

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August 28, 2017

The University of Portland has received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to improve teaching environments for undergraduate students in STEM classes by increasing student-centered, evidence-based learning methodologies.

Quality STEM education is critical for students’ success both in the classroom and in their future careers. The grant-funded project, Redesigning Education For Learning through Evidence and Collaborative Teaching (REFLECT), will develop and facilitate teaching leadership institutes to expose faculty to innovative, active learning instruction methods and then assist them in implementing the practices in their classrooms. Faculty members in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, and computer science will be participating in the three-year project.  

“The University of Portland encourages our faculty to explore new and innovative methods to enhance student engagement and further ensure their academic success,” said Dr. Thomas Greene, provost. “Reforming STEM education has drawn national attention and the University is taking the lead in addressing the need for creative, active learning environments.”

Participating faculty will explore current research-supported instructional practices and develop and implement student-centered curricular innovations that favor active learning, which involves students in the learning process more directly than in other traditional teaching lecture model teaching. The resulting instructional changes will improve the retention and success of STEM students while reshaping the institutional culture of teaching.

“All of the onus in lecture-style teaching is on the teacher, but the teacher is not the one learning,” said Dr. Stephanie Salomone, the project’s principal investigator. “By engaging students in the process of discovering the information, we are fostering their curiosity and creating an innovative mindset, one that is focused on problem-solving, not memorization.

Active learning styles involve students independently discovering information. One method is a flipped classroom, where, rather than faculty giving information in the classroom, the students are responsible for researching information they bring to the classroom. A similar style, the inquiry-based method, involves providing students with problems to do at home, which are then reviewed by their peers in the classroom, who determine if they are correct.

The REFLECT project framework has been designed for small teaching-focused universities where the incentive structure for faculty is often based on teaching success, rather than research output. The project will test an innovative method of teacher review based on faculty peer observation. The project participants will work in teams of 2-3 faculty which will engage in a reflective process of regular peer observation and in structured conversations about teaching and learning. Faculty participants will be trained in formative assessment and in process-oriented protocols for evaluating teaching.  The peer support will also help ensure the long-term sustainability of the instructional changes.

The REFLECT project was initiated by a cohort of University STEM faculty, including Dr. Salomone, mathematics; Dr. Eric Anctil, education; Dr. Tara Prestholdt, biology; Dr. Valerie Peterson, mathematics; Dr. Heather Dillon, engineering; and Dr. Carolyn James, mathematics.

Once successfully implemented, the REFLECT framework will be published to serve as a model for other universities in the broader adoption of evidence-based teaching in STEM courses. The 3-year UP project will conclude with a symposium to engage all STEM faculty at the University, as well as faculty from area 2-year and 4-year colleges, and to promote the use of evidence-based instructional practices and faculty peer observation more broadly.

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