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Sustaining the Changes You Make: 21st-annual Cottrell Scholar Conference

Cottrell Scholar TREE Award Winners with RCSA President Robert Shelton. L-R - Keivan Stassun, physics, Vanderbilt University; Mats Selen, physics, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Dr. Shelton; and Catherine J. Murphy, chemistry, also University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. TREE -- Transformational Research and Excellence in Education -- serves to encourage the teacher-scholar model at universities and colleges.


The 21st-annual Cottrell Scholar Conference drew more than 70 representatives from research universities (R1) as well as primarily undergraduate institutions (PUI) and professional organizations to discuss making and sustaining improvements to STEM education.

It was the first conference bringing together R1 and PUI faculty under the recently upgraded CS program. Participants generally agreed the new mix added vitality and a renewed spirit of innovation to the conference.

“If our work is to have long-lasting impact, we must seek support from a wide array of stakeholders,” noted conference co-chairs Adam Leibovich, physics, University of Pittsburg, and Silvia Ronco, RCSA program director. “To transform education, faculty must engage students in their classrooms while also working effectively with colleagues, department chairs and university administrators. All of this requires engagement and steady commitment.”

Precisely how to achieve those objectives fueled most of the conference discussions.

Identifying Core Ideas

Keynote speaker Melanie Cooper, Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education, in the chemistry department of Michigan State University, spoke on the need to help students develop “deep, robust, and useful knowledge.” For example, she described the advantages to chemistry students of developing an early understanding of Lewis structures. (Diagrams that show the bonding between atoms of a molecule and the lone pairs of electrons that may exist in the molecule.)

“We did a longitudinal study following the same cohort of students through organic chemistry,” Cooper reported. “And what we find is, although they do get a bit better, with many of these fundamental things, only about half of the students, at the end of two years of organic chemistry understand that you can determine things if you know what you’re looking for [in a Lewis structure].”

She noted that’s the only reason to learn to create a Lewis structure. “It’s not to pass an exam. It’s because they code all of this information that you’re going to use. And I would submit to you that the reason why students can’t do organic chemistry is not because it’s boring, not because they can’t figure out chirality, but because they don’t understand what information is encoded in these structures.”

Cooper said that at Michigan State, where she is also jointly appointed to the College of Education, members of the CREATE for STEM Institute are using an approach based on “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” a widely disseminated publication of the National Academies Press, to engage faculty to identify the core ideas of their disciplines, the important concepts that cross disciplines, and the ways in which teachers use the fundamental ideas.

“This three-dimensional approach to teaching and learning will necessarily change the way we teach our classes and assess student learning,” she maintains.

Addressing the Chronic Disconnect

The conference’s second keynote speaker, G. Peter Lepage, Physics Professor, and former Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Cornell University, addressed the seemingly chronic disconnect between the extensive research supporting new approaches to teaching college-level STEM subjects, and the ”very low” rate of adoption of these new ideas.

About seven years ago, Lepage said, he became aware that there were hundreds of research papers saying there are much better pedagogical approaches to STEM education than traditional classroom lecturing. “But it was clear that traditional lecturing still dominated at Cornell, as it does in most places. And so for me the question is, what do we do about it?”

He noted that audience response systems, such as the i>Clicker developed by the University of Illinois, have created entirely new opportunities in teaching because they help the teacher to control what people are thinking about in the classroom.

“If you look a little harder, though, you discover that lecturing is actually powerful,” Lepage said. He cited research showing that when a student thinks about a problem and then engages in peer discussion on that problem, there are “reasonable learning gains.” But when a student engages in independent thinking and then engages in peer instruction and finally listens to a brief lecture on the problem, the learning gain almost doubles.

“What that says to me is that lecturing is, in fact, incredibly powerful if you do it at the right time,” Lepage said. “The whole point of active learning, of having students vote and such, is to prep them for that point at which you explain to them what’s actually going on. You’ve got their attention if they got the wrong answer on their own, and especially if their group got the wrong answer…That’s very motivating for people, and subsequently they pay very strong attention.”

In looking at 225 papers on active learning that have accumulated over the past quarter century, Lepage concluded the evidence is “very compelling” that it was time for a “phase transition” in the way STEM subjects are taught. He noted one paper observed that a student is 1.5 times more likely to fail if he or she is in a traditional lecture course. “The authors concluded that it’s unethical to use conventional lectures as a control because, as in medical studies, it’s harmful to the patients” involved in the study.

Lepage said he realized it was his responsibility as a dean to act on all this evidence. Fortunately, he found a donor willing to put up $2 million.

While it’s not true that faculty don’t care about teaching in a large institution like Cornell, Lepage said professors have almost no clue what’s going on in educational research, particularly when none is occurring at their school. Another impediment to change is that teachers are worried that using innovative methods will prevent them from covering all the required topics they must touch on during the semester.

“But the single biggest thing is lack of time,” he said. “It’s clear that overhauling your teaching methods requires a huge amount of time, and asking people to do that on top of what they’re already doing would seem to be ridiculous.”

And then, he added, some deans “will complain they can’t possibly tell faculty how to teach. They have academic freedom. But that’s a real cop out in my opinion because you can’t tell faculty to do anything, actually. One of your skills as a dean is figuring out how to convince them to do good things.”

Lepage said he took the $2 million windfall and created a competition.  “We made it similar to the way the NSF launches a competition with an RFP, and challenged departments to bid for chunks of this $2 million.”

The competition aspect, which required department-wide buy-in, with particular emphasis on large, introductory classes, was key, he added: “I needed really enthusiastic people; as a dean I couldn’t take time to talk people into this. I needed people who have the excitement to overcome the obvious hurdles, partly because we have no expertise in creating these innovative programs.”

Five STEM departments entered the competition, with the two most extensive proposals -- from physics and biology – eventually winning funding. The final results of Lepage’s grand experiment have yet to be tallied.

TREE Awards

Three outstanding Cottrell Scholars were the first to receive the new TREE Award. TREE -- Transformational Research and Excellence in Education -- serves to encourage the teacher-scholar model at universities and colleges. It includes an unrestricted $20,000 award sent to the awardee’s institution on behalf of his or her educational and scholar work. 

The 2015 awardees are Catherine J. Murphy, chemistry, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Mats Selen, physics, also University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Keivan Stassun, physics, Vanderbilt University. The recipients each gave a dinner speech outlining their accomplishments. For more see:

Breakout Sessions

One of the hallmarks of the Cottrell Scholar Conference is its breakout sessions, in which 10 to 15 Scholars discuss issues in depth. This year’s topics were devoted wholly to improving STEM education. They included:

--PUI and Research Intensive Institutions Working Together to Transform Science Education

--How not to be a Hero: Why Change is Hard

--Obtaining Buy-in and Support

--Your Bring-Home Message

While there were many particular points of argument as well as examples of personal experiences discussed in those breakout sessions, the general assumptions that seemed to accompany the conversations can be found in an article in the Comment section of Nature (Vol. 523\16 July 2015). It was authored by Cottrell Scholar Stephen E. Bradforth and a number of other Cottrell Scholars, along with Emily R. Miller, director of the Undergraduate Stem Education Initiative of the Association of American Universities.

“It is no longer acceptable to blame primary- and secondary-school teachers for the deficits in STEM learning at the university level,” the authors argue.

The article briefly outlines examples of best-in-class pedagogical practices, programs and practices, pointing out that active learning interventions have been shown to improve achievement for all students, particularly those with disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds.

“No single tool will work for all universities,” they note, “but every university now has at its disposal the tools to improve undergraduate STEM teaching, and no defensible reason for not using them.”

As a first step, the authors insist, institutions colleges and departments must expect and enable their faculty members to be scholarly about teaching. And they must assess, recognize and reward those who are.”

Additional Business

As is traditional at the conference, newly named Cottrell Scholars gave presentations on their teaching strategies. The talks were interspersed throughout the general sessions. (See for a list of 2015 scholars and a brief discussion of their works.)

In addition, members of the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative reported on their ongoing collective projects, which include a workshop for new faculty, as well as instruction for teaching assistants, a project to assess innovations in science education, and a new project getting underway to promote high-quality leadership skills in academia.

Longtime conference attendees remarked favorably on the growing sophistication of the discussions in the breakout sessions, the high quality of the newly minted Scholars, and the increasing proportion of women among the ranks of chemists, physicists and astronomers who compose the growing cadre of Cottrell Scholars.

“The success of the Cottrell Scholar Conference is grounded in the active engagement of the participants,” said RCSA President Robert N. Shelton. “With a first-time mix of Cottrell Scholars from both R1 universities and PUIs, the planned sessions and spontaneous collaborations stimulated creative ideas well into the night.” 

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