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STEM Project Site: The University of Arizona

The University of Arizona Goals & Objectives:

The objective of the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative project at the University of Arizona is to change the culture of faculty instructional approaches to be more student-centered and use active learning pedagogies.

The UA project promotes and supports the redesign of introductory STEM courses in three ways: (1) by providing intensive professional development support for faculty to use evidence-based methods; (2) by facilitating faculty learning communities (FLCs) among interested instructors; and (3) by being a driver for change in making more classroom spaces across campus be conducive to active learning techniques.

The project team started by developing and institutionalizing FLCs to create a core group of faculty support for reforming teaching in STEM courses. Along with FLCs, the project team created Collaborative Learning Spaces (CLSs) by redesigning existing spaces and teaching student-centered, active learning-based introductory STEM courses in them.

The success of the initial results in introductory STEM courses resulted in the creation of more CLSs of varying sizes across campus, the development of workshops and instructional guides for faculty on how to best utilize CLSs to facilitate active learning classrooms, and the targeting of FLCs to assist instructors who teach in these spaces. The continual growth of CLSs and faculty members using and interested in using active learning pedagogies in these spaces indicates a cultural shift in teaching is occurring in the desired direction.

The University of Arizona Change Model:

The UA change model focused initially on implementing a network of faculty members committed to improving STEM undergraduate education.

Labeled the “coalition of the willing,” UA used a faculty learning community (FLC) model to enable individuals who were often isolated in their own programs and departments to work collaboratively with like-minded individuals. The FLC provided a mechanism for sharing information about and experiences with evidence-based teaching.

The FLC-based model also was able to add members over time thereby increasing the number of faculty members engaged in STEM reform at UA. Since the network was supported by and run out of the Associate Provost’s office, this approach combined a type of bottom-up and top-down model for reform.

This approach permitted UA to ramp up quickly, using courses taught by members of the FLCs as the initial target. The exception was the existing Chemical Thinking sequence which had been developed prior to the AAU project; it was incorporated into the AAU project in which it has enjoyed a prominent place in STEM campus reforms.

The combined bottom-up plus top-down approach shares some characteristics with the change models at CU Boulder (using Departmental Action Teams as an approximate equivalent to FLCs) as well as UNC-Chapel Hill (with a mentor-apprentice model as the bottom-up component of the model).

The limitation of the “coalition of the willing” model is that courses targeted for reform were not necessarily selected because they were linchpin courses or because they taught the most students. They were selected because members of the FLCs taught them. Again, this approach was consistent with rapid implementation and high commitment by participating faculty to evidence-based teaching. The challenge going forward is that some of the crucial linchpin courses are not taught by members of the FLCs nor are they all controlled by departments with a substantial commitment to reforms.   
Despite this limitation, the evidence of successful implementation of course reforms is substantial. Chemical Thinking has been fully implemented. Chemical & Environmental Engineering has redesigned introductory courses. Molecular and Cellular Biology has agreed on a common text and examination. It has fully implemented a reformed introductory course. The Physics department agreed on a set of learning tasks for revising its introductory course. The current number of reformed courses exceeded that which was initially proposed.
The top-down role of the Associate Provost, who is the Principal Investigator for this AAU project site, links the AAU project with institutional resources and political support. Importantly, this office also controls the use of recently redesigned active-learning oriented classrooms. This control ensures that the reformatted classrooms are only used by faculty members incorporating evidence-based instruction in their courses.
The FLC model has been effective in providing a formal mechanism around which reform-oriented faculty members can coalesce. FLCs have gained stature in part because of a deliberate strategy to include a substantial number of tenure-track faculty as participants. In addition, evidence of effectiveness in student learning outcomes, especially course performance in classes taken after the introductory course, was leveraged by the campus project team to gain support by departments for the reforms.