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STEM Project Site: University of Colorado Boulder

University of Colorado Boulder Goals & Objectives:

The AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative project at University of Colorado Boulder targets changes in both culture and structures to foster coherent, long-lasting reforms. The project uses a three-layer approach that focuses on faculty practices, departmental culture, and administrative support/policies.

Activities in the multilayers include: (1) working with groups of faculty (and often students and staff) in Departmental Action Teams (DATs) to create sustainable mechanisms to address educational issues within departments; (2) applying targeted approaches to individual departments to stimulate cultural change; and (3) working with senior administration and the faculty senate to promote the use of evidence-based teaching practices through incentives and the adoption of a framework for teaching excellence.

The three layers are supported by the Office of Institutional Technology and the Office of Institutional Research, which provide a common infrastructure across departments for the use of student data and for the collection and use of observational data on classroom practices. The project, now branded as the STEM Institutional Transformation Action Research (SITAR) project, is housed in the Center for STEM Learning and will continue to support educational improvements and cultural shifts on campus.

University of Colorado Boulder Change Model:

CU Boulder’s change model is unique among the AAU project sites.

From the beginning, CU Boulder focused on institutional and cultural change as a method for improving undergraduate STEM education. Change was driven by aligning appeals for action from the administration (top-down) with on-the-ground faculty work via Department Action Teams (DATs; bottom-up) and was supported by infrastructural improvements in classroom data collection and student data visualization.

This approach relied on extensive previous classroom and curricular reforms in STEM at CU Boulder through the Science Education Initiative, so it did not include a component that engaged faculty members in reformed teaching. This approach appeared to lag in its effectiveness through the second year of implementation. By the third year, however, evidence suggests that the DATs are taking hold and beginning to provide a bottom-up faculty-led effort to contribute to the push for reform from the central administration. 

A DAT is a departmental-based working group of about 4 to 8 faculty, staff, and/or students that works on a cross-cutting educational issue over one or two years, with the support of outside facilitators and the sanction of the department chair. DAT participants choose their focus by developing a vision for undergraduate education in their department; example foci from DATs at CU Boulder include curricular/instructional revision and alignment, improving equity and diversity, and enhancing community among faculty, students, and staff. DATs both implement change and focus on creating lasting structures (e.g., committees, positions, policies) that can continue their work over time (rather than viewing change as a one-time “fix”).

DATs maintain transparency by sharing information with and making recommendations for change to the chair, appropriate departmental committees, and the department as a whole. Initial DATs at CU Boulder initiated a variety of structural changes within their departments, including the allocation of several instructor course equivalents to serve as curriculum coordinators; the formation of a standing committee focused on student diversity, retention, and recruitment; and the restructuring of a course sequence to better support majors transitioning to upper division.