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UC Davis awarded $500,000 to improve STEM teaching

June 25, 2013

The University of California, Davis, will further its work to improve teaching in the nationally important fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — including redesigning introductory courses that enroll thousands — as part of an Association of American Universities initiative announced today.

UC Davis is one of eight universities each receiving $500,000 over three years through the AAU's five-year initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate education and help retain students in STEM majors, especially those from historically underrepresented ethnic groups. UC Davis is investing $575,000 in matching funds.

The AAU initiative has been made possible by a three-year, $4.7 million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

The UC Davis project and others respond to a 2012 report that called for 1 million more STEM graduates in the next decade. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said the additional STEM graduates are needed if the United States is to maintain pre-eminence in STEM fields — and gain the social, economic and national security benefits that come with it.

"UC Davis is proud of our commitment to STEM education," said Ralph Hexter, provost and executive vice chancellor of UC Davis. "This project will enable us to better understand how our STEM students are learning at crucial moments in their degree programs and help us improve education for them and advance STEM education in the United States."

Of nearly 25,500 undergraduates at UC Davis in 2012-13, about 14,600, or 57 percent, majored in STEM fields. Of the 6,738 bachelor's degrees UC Davis conferred in 2011-12, 2,772, or more than 40 percent, were in STEM fields; the percentages for STEM degrees climb to 47 percent of master's degrees and 70 percent of doctorates.

At UC Davis, the AAU project will be coordinated through the campus's iAMSTEM Hub, established in August 2012 to foster evidenced-based teaching practices to improve STEM student success at the undergraduate level.

Focus on introductory courses

UC Davis will use the AAU funding to help redesign introductory courses in biology and chemistry, offer a new freshman course in engineering design and communications, and improve advising in engineering. The pilot project for introductory biology is set to begin this fall.

Overall, changes will focus on helping students see the relevance of course content to careers in the fields, offering customized online instruction and enriching discussion sections.

Retaining the students who enter STEM majors is an important strategy identified by the national advisory report. And the 2008 entering class at UC Davis demonstrates this: Of students from historically underrepresented ethnic groups (African American, Native American and Chicano/Latino) who started in a STEM major, 54 percent, or 275 students, left STEM fields within four years; of those from historically represented groups who started in a STEM major, 36 percent, or 768 students, left STEM fields. Of all those who left STEM majors, more than one-third also left the university.

Marco Molinaro, assistant vice provost for Undergraduate Education with responsibility for iAMSTEM, serves as leader of UC Davis' AAU project. One of the problems with retaining STEM majors, he said, is that their studies cover basic material in the first two years and can seem removed from the experiences of a person working in the field. He said lower division courses tend to emphasize memorization instead of what have been identified as skills of the 21st century: critical thinking, analyzing data, communication, teamwork and the ability to work in a global context.

"If students don't feel a sense of community, if they don't feel they belong, if they don't see the relevance of what they're learning," Molinaro said, "it's hard for them to justify staying."

Underpinning the AAU project and related work at UC Davis is an emphasis on encouraging innovative use of what is already known about teaching and learning in the STEM fields and data from the participating schools. "There is research on how teaching and learning can be improved," Molinaro said. "We want to encourage its use as well as conduct our own applied research in education," he added.

In keeping with that goal, the UC Davis matching funds will provide $300,000 for six Provost's Fellowships for Innovative Teaching, $30,000 for an annual conference about scholarship on teaching and learning, and $50,000 in iAMSTEM support in the third year of the grant.

Project highlights

Among the UC Davis projects:

  • Beginning this fall, a pilot will flip elements of the introductory course for biology majors. As an introduction to material, students will complete online modules that will provide "adaptive learning" or additional, customized material where they need greater support. Discussion sections will be used to apply concepts to solve novel and difficult problems related to big ideas in biology. Courses will continue to include classes with faculty lectures. About 600 students will participate in the pilot, and another 600 in traditional classes will serve as the control group.
  • Also, this fall, UC Davis will launch a new engineering design and communications course to engage freshmen in the process of designing solutions to engineering-related problems for campus customers and members of the community. The pilot will involve 40 students.
  • A special curricula task force will re-envision students' introduction to chemistry. It will review admissions placement exams, remedial coursework, course consistency across sections, course testing and grading policies. The committee will develop pilot programs likely to include adaptive learning and peer learning communities.

The eight AAU project sites were chosen from among 31 submissions. The other seven are: Brown University, Michigan State University, University of Arizona, University of Colorado Boulder, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis.

UC Davis, ranked eighth nationally among U.S. public research universities by U.S. News, is a leader in STEM education. In 2012, it invested $1.2 million to establish the iAMSTEM Hub to use evidenced-based action to maximize the capabilities and resiliency of STEM graduates to enhance employability. UC Davis is also a member of the Bay View Alliance and Project Kaleidoscope STEM Effectiveness Framework, which seek to advance undergraduate education in the STEM fields.

Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi herself is principal investigator for a project — supported with a $3.725 million grant from the National Science Foundation — to increase the participation of women, especially Latinas, in academic STEM careers.

About the Association of American Universities

The Association of American Universities is an association of 59 U.S. and two Canadian research universities organized to develop and implement effective national and institutional policies supporting research and scholarship, graduate and professional education, undergraduate education, and public service in research universities.

About the Helmsley Charitable Trust

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting effective nonprofits in a variety of selected areas. Since 2008, when the trust began its active grant making, it has committed more than $900 million to a wide range of charitable organizations. Through its National Education Program, the trust views education as a lever to advance both American economic competitiveness and individual social mobility. In K-12, the trust focuses on ensuring all students graduate high school prepared for college or careers by supporting teacher effectiveness and the implementation of high academic standards. In postsecondary education, the trust is primarily interested in increasing the number of STEM graduates who can participate in high growth sectors of the economy. The trust also focuses on policy levers that improve postsecondary completion, particularly for underrepresented populations.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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