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STEM Project Site: University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania Goals & Objectives:

The project team at the University of Pennsylvania aims to improve introductory courses in mathematics, chemistry, physics, and bioengineering through utilizing teaching practices that foster active learning and student engagement.

In 2013, the university launched the Structured, Active, In-class, Learning (SAIL) program. The program, facilitated by the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, assists instructors as they develop, implement and evaluate active learning activities to transform their classes into SAIL courses.

SAIL courses provide students with the opportunity to struggle through the application of course content—often the most difficult part of learning for students—with guidance from instructors and help from their peers. Thus, SAIL courses require students to do work outside of class time to prepare for in-class activities.

The Center for Teaching and Learning works to disseminate SAIL practices across campus through monthly seminars, provides support for the creation of educational videos that can be utilized by students outside of class time, provides training for SAIL course Graduate Teaching Assistants, assists in the development of more active learning classroom spaces, and provides financial support for faculty reforming their courses through small grants.

Assessments and the creation of new classrooms have also been an important part of UPenn’s change model. The new classrooms create a physical incentive for faculty members to assess their own class and rethink teaching.

University of Pennsylvania Change Model:

UPenn is likely the most faculty-centric institution among the AAU projects. The power for change is invested primarily in the collection of individual faculty members at this type of institution with the role of the central administration seen primarily in terms of resource allocation and political support.

In this model the unit of change is the individual faculty member in her or his classroom. Although many individual faculty members are involved in UPenn’s AAU project, representing six departments, project leadership is primarily invested in the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). Unlike WashU’s CIRCLE or MSU’s CREATE for STEM, the key personnel in UPenn’s Center are not tenure-track faculty members.

The tradeoff for this arrangement is as follows: CTL does not have the same prestige or clout as department-led reform initiatives but this arrangement is consistent with forming a network of individual faculty reformers when no departmental unit has sufficient numbers to form its own collective.

To date, UPenn has instructors participating from Bioengineering, Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Environmental Science, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, and Physics. Overall this approach seems consistent with effective implementation of course reforms and dissemination; less clear is the long-term support of academic departments and central administration, although the resources pledged by central administration to promote STEM reforms to date is an encouraging sign.

The primary mechanism for reform is the SAIL format used as a rubric for course reform across departments. The CTL helped establish and coordinate a STEM Faculty Advisory Board which serves to coalesce interest in these reforms across individual faculty members. CTL also serves to foster a network for STEM reform by providing Teacher Assistant training across programs and departments.