PKAL Volume IV: What Works, What Matters What Lasts

A Model of Learning

April 16, 2007

We are led, therefore, to postulate that the ideal model for learning science, mathematics and engineering at the undergraduate level has three irreducible qualities:
  1. The learner is enmeshed in a community of learners.
  2. The learning experience is personal.
  3. The learning establishes connections that place [learning] in context.

These qualities will meet the test of diffusibility. They can be created anywhere.

– excerpted from Learning Science, an essay from PKAL Volume I: What Works in Building Natural Science Communities

This ideal model, which emerged from and guided the work of early PKAL leaders, was distilled from the reflections and experiences of many pioneering agents of change in the late 20th century. From their work, it was clear that what works is when the classroom (and lab) is seen as a locus for activity and dialogue, for cooperative efforts engaging students, and students and faculty, and a place for students to construct their own knowledge.

Increasingly over the past several years, our understanding the power of this model has shaped the design of PKAL events. We seek to build a community of learners among participants at PKAL workshops, seminars, and institutes through the use of case studies and other experiential learning opportunities. These are designed to make participants more aware of the commonality of problems and opportunities facing 21st century STEM leaders, and more aware of the interesting approaches to addressing them that emerge from substantive dialogue with colleagues from campuses across the country. Several of the case studies used for PKAL events in recent years will be adapted for the 2007 PKAL Summer Institute, and disseminated for broader use in faculty development retreats and other settings sponsored by leaders on individual campuses.

For example, at the recent 2007 PKAL Facilities Planning Workshop, the case study centered around the key question: how do you gain informed and committed supporters for the major investment of institutional resources that is called for when new spaces for science are needed? This case study was shaped in response to the "burning questions" submitted in team applicants to the workshop.

The reporting-out on this case study hit on the several critical audiences (trustees, senior officers, colleagues within and beyond the sciences) that must be convinced that transforming undergraduate STEM is in the interest of the entire campus community. The ideas from each table– with a repeated emphasis on the impact on students– on how to tell the story and what the story should be, are valuable insights for all STEM leaders wrestling with the broader question of Why change?

The richness of the reports from the tables illustrates again the value of learning in community and of being open to discussions with colleagues representing diverse perspectives and the impact of such discussions when the issue is one that touches the day-to-day lives of those engaged.