Innovating STEM Learning in Higher Education

Getting young students through the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pathway has been a long-standing national priority. Federal grants to improve K-12 STEM outcomes date as far back as the Eisenhower administration of the 1950’s, when the Sputnik crisis propelled science education to the national stage. The stated rationale for STEM prioritization, then and today, is one most scientists likely accept intuitively. That is, education in science is needed to meet the demands of an economy that is becoming dominated by technologically complex jobs rooted in increasingly sophisticated scientific knowledge.

The smart phone or tablet you’re probably using to read this is a tangible, if anecdotal, testament to an economy that values a STEM workforce. And the numbers generally support this view: As of 2011, 20 percent of all U.S. jobs required a high level of knowledge in a STEM field. This proportion is likely to increase, with projections from the Department of Education and Department of Commerce suggesting accelerated growth in these kinds of jobs. STEM is a broad term, though, and it is important to note that careers requiring only a bachelor’s degree (or even a sub-bachelor’s degree) constitute just as much of the job market as graduate-level STEM careers. In such a heterogeneous market, both the supply of job-seekers and the demand for jobs can mismatch, often in opposite directions. This may explain the current situation, where colleges are producing PhD’s faster than can be absorbed into academic faculty positions—often leaving them inadequately trained for non-academic careers—but also leaving some STEM fields short-staffed.

So how does the U.S. education system fare when it comes to preparing early-stage STEM pupils? Not particularly well. K-12 students continue to lie in the middle of the international pack for science and math literacy. The picture is not much better for post-secondary education, as almost half of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in STEM disciplines leave college or switch to a non-STEM major – and the number tops nearly seventy percent for associate’s degrees. The high attrition rates have led national policy-makers, such as the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), to argue for improved student retention as a cost-effective way to increase the national pool of STEM professionals.

The great challenge, then, is this: How do we improve the outcomes for, and retention of, STEM students in higher education?


Active Learning Gets Students Moving

This is a lofty question, without a clear-cut answer. But in recent years there has been a lot of buzz around bringing innovative teaching techniques into higher education classrooms. In particular, the PCAST report calls for “active learning” as a remedy to the retention problem.

What is active learning, and what distinguishes it from the traditional class? The “active” label encompasses many teaching methods, but all of them share common threads. A 2014 study led by Scott Freeman, which examined the effectiveness of active learning, defined it as “engag[ing] students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert.” The idea is to shift the burden of education onto the students, making them actively participate in the learning process during class. This stands in sharp contrast to the traditional large-hall lectures we’ve all experienced in our own academics, where listening and note taking are the predominant “activities” performed by students.

Active learning as a concept emerged from decades of pedagogical research, a field that tries to empirically understand how students learn and thereby improve teaching practices (ASCB publishes this type of research through CBE Life Sciences Education). Freeman and his colleagues performed a meta-analysis of over 200-such empirical studies, each of them examining the effect of active learning on student outcomes. They found that individual student exam grades and overall pass rates were significantly and markedly improved when active learning was employed—and this was true across nearly all of the STEM disciplines examined.

A healthy dose of caution should always be taken to avoid unwarranted commitments to short-term reform fads. The evidence does suggest that active learning can work, though, and at least for now, the movement toward active learning in higher education is gaining momentum nationally.

For those interested in using active learning, the ASCB offers two programs where participants, through long-term one-on-one mentorship, can develop the student-centered teaching skills necessary to promote maximum student success. The Promoting Active Learning and Teaching (PALM) Network  is a joint venture of the ASCB and several other life science professional societies that focuses on developing active learning strategies to reform the traditional lecture classroom. The Mentoring in Active Learning and Teaching (MALT) program (which will start accepting applications in January 2017) focuses on mentorships that extend participant research (or other research projects) into course-based undergraduate research.


Implementing Innovation

Educators who are more familiar with the PowerPoint approach to teaching may well ask: how does active learning actually unfold in the classroom? Can any teacher do it? How much preparation is involved?

Active learning was on full display at this year’s IRACDA (Institutional and Academic Career Development Awards) conference, where members congregate to discuss trends in higher education. The NIH-funded program trains postdocs as both researchers and teachers, and so the conference naturally attracts scientists interested in using empirical evidence to improve standards of practice in teaching. Indeed, at last year’s conference it was Freeman himself who gave the keynote address.

This year, the conference was held at the University of Arizona, and members of the UA faculty showcased their first-hand experiences implementing active learning strategies.

Lisa Elfring, an associate professor in the department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, offered tips to faculty looking to augment standard lectures with active techniques. She encouraged using any activity that has students thinking while doing something physical, such as making a diagram or cutting something out. A simple but effective exercise is the Think-Pair-Share (TPS): Students are presented with a problem, think for a moment to solve it on their own, discuss and develop their answer with a classmate or small group, and present it as part of a broader classroom discussion. TPS can change the tone of a class by breaking up a lecture with student conversation. It also gives each student the opportunity to digest information and engage with the teacher, addressing conceptual errors in real time. Moreover, by allowing students to work in small groups first TPS can help overcome student fears of speaking out in a large class. “Giving [students] a little bit of time in their groups to engage first gives some of them the confidence that they need to make a contribution in the large class situation,” said Elfring.


The Learning Space Matters, Too

Active learning can be enhanced in the right environment. University of Arizona photo.

Active learning can be enhanced in the right environment. University of Arizona photo.

To a certain extent, active learning can be carried out in any classroom. However, traditional lecture halls—with their bleacher seating and immovable forward-facing chairs—are not conducive to group work. A talk given by IRACDA alumnus Jonathan Cox demonstrated how universities can design better teaching spaces for active learning. UA is overhauling its chemistry curriculum, and the new program is highly infused with group-based problem solving and discussion.

To meet the demands of engagement-heavy courses, the university built collaborative learning spaces. What do they look like? In short: nothing like a traditional classroom.

All of the desks and chairs are all fully movable, allowing students to shift easily into groups. Projectors face every wall, so students can see a problem from any angle of the room without having to leave their group. Handheld whiteboards are available for students to work out answers and share work with others, and a camera sits up front for students to present their whiteboard to the class.

During the session we had our own active learning experience, as Cox presented data for us to interpret and analyze. We were given a few minutes to discuss the figures in groups of four, then shared with the room. The focus shifted from the speaker to attendees, and the energy in the room was palpable as conversations commenced. With our desks pressed against one another, it was impossible to shy away from the group. The “professor” navigated the room during the mini-group discussions, fielding questions and prodding answers from individual “students’.” Once group leaders shared their answers to the entire “class,” Cox summarized the main conceptual information that he meant for us to learn from the data.


Where is Active Learning Headed?

From the session it was easy to see how a facilitated discussion can channel student engagement toward learning real content in a STEM class. But designing and implementing active learning can be time-consuming and resource-heavy, requiring professional development for faculty and additional facilitators for larger class sizes. At UA, the largest collaborative learning space holds over 200 students and requires multiple teaching assistants working together with the faculty to run a class. There are also challenges associated with group dynamics in active learning, as teachers must make sure that all students participate equally and have to find ways to grade individual student performance. Perhaps most importantly, active learning requires buy-in from the students and the professors. Many faculty resist active learning for a variety of reasons, most notably because the added time for discussion and problem-solving often means a loss of content coverage. But as UA demonstrates, full-bore implementation of active learning is achievable, given the right academic support network.

Active learning in higher education is still fairly nascent, and the debate over its effectiveness will likely require yet more well-controlled, randomized studies in STEM classes. This will certainly take many years. But perhaps this is for the best. After all, as scientists we should ultimately gear our classroom experiences toward what counts most: evidence.
Do you have experiences implementing active learning in the classroom? What challenges have you faced? If you would like to share your thoughts with the ASCB COMPASS Blog readers, email the article author at

About the Author:

Travis is a former postdoctoral researcher in the Cell Biology Department at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY, where he studied the role of linker histone H1 in the regulation of chromatin structure in Drosophila melanogaster. He remains affiliated with the Einstein division of the national IRACDA program, where he is developing interventions to improve STEM student learning outcomes, and is an adjunct assistant professor at Iona College. Travis recently left his full-time academic position to pursue a career in medical writing. He has been a COMPASS associate member since March 2015 and is serving on the communication subcommittee. Email: Comments and suggestions are always welcome! Email: Comments and suggestions are always welcome!
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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