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U-M aims to transform STEM teaching

ANN ARBOR—Leaders of a project to transform the teaching of STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at the University of Michigan say it will take a culture change from within to accomplish, but they are confident the university is ready for the challenge.

The new effort, called REBUILD, will bring together faculty from physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts with colleagues from the School of Education. Their goal is to ensure that STEM education is evidence-based, continually refined and delivered by multigenerational teams modeled on the research groups of today.

Tim McKay, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the LSA Honors Program, is leading the project, which has initial support from a $2 million National Science Foundation Grant.

"There has been a lot of research over the last decades and a lot of new technology invented that enables us to teach introductory science in new kinds of ways—in ways that are demonstrably more effective," McKay said.

Nationally and at U-M, more than half the students who come to college to major in a STEM field do not follow through, the team wrote in its proposal to NSF. The biggest drop off in participation in these majors comes when students take introductory courses, they noted.

REBUILD will involve 21 courses, enrolling more than 8,000 students each semester, that will go through a three-year process of evidence-based reform. It will be modeled after U-M's STRIDE program, which is designed to improve the campus climate for women in STEM fields and to recruit more women into these areas. STRIDE has become a national model for how to encourage change from within.

A first goal of REBUILD is to demonstrate through research the benefits of alternate methods of teaching, away from the traditional lecture often found in courses with large enrollment.

Faculty teams will choose what works best for their courses. I am excited to see what people come up with. Professor Laura Olsen

"It won't be one-size-fits-all," said Laura Olsen, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and of ecology and evolutionary biology. "Faculty teams will choose what works best for their courses. I am excited to see what people come up with."

"This grant and the program Tim and his colleagues have planned provides a terrific opportunity for U-M not only to lead in reshaping STEM education but to create a model for transforming curriculum across the university," said Provost Martha Pollack. "In keeping with our Third Century Initiative to set a course for our next century of learning and scholarship, the REBUILD program provides faculty a chance to foster excellence and creativity in our undergraduates, as they engage students in new ways."

The program officially begins in January 2014, and McKay said the first nine months will be spent with teams of faculty from STEM areas and the School of Education pouring over the research. Planning for how to implement changes also will occur during this period, which will involve helping each department set targets. He expects the first noticeable changes in the classroom to occur in fall 2014 and continue to roll out.