Lessons Learned: Fostering Informed Conversations and Taking Meaningful Actions Towards a Robust Undergraduate STEM Learning Environment that Serves All Students

How to get conversations going.

  • Food helps.
  • Formal structures help.
    “An interdisciplinary science board has been established that includes the dean, directors for faculty development/corporate and foundation relations, assessment/intercultural relations. We meet regularly. Shared curriculum development projects have emerged that are accomplished because we all own them.”
  • Non-edible carrots help.
    “Since we are a public research university, our vision of a research-rich learning environment had to engage research faculty. Putting on the table the possibility of a new, state-certified program (undergrad-Ph.D.) interdisciplinary program brought all faculty to our regular meetings, hosted by the dean; no one ever felt left out.”
  • Focus on things that matter.
    “The projects people are working on have to matter. What I have done is create a separate ‘space’ for my cadre of bright, young faculty to work together, with a specific charge to produce/implement ideas relating to our vision for interdisciplinary sciences. This brings faculty across all science disciplines together in a new way, and they have found great collegiality and creatively—and the result is a vision that is firmly grounded in their own sense of where the disciplines are headed. The important thing that they know how their piece is fitting into larger institutional initiatives.”
  • Understand the institutional culture.
    “Things happen on this campus, and only happen, when they are nurtured ground-up. Top-down does not work here.”
  • Know what the right questions are.
    “It took much time, which eventually was not wasted time, to figure out the right questions— that it was not about individual courses, or spaces, or more.... It was when we starting asking questions about students, everything else began to fall into place.”

How to keep conversations going toward meaning change.

  • See above.
  • Take advantage of real problems.
    “The initial challenge to change was that no one saw the urgency—our students seemed to be doing fine (just ask the faculty). The increasing national attention to the character of student learning in STEM fields was a catalyst for new kinds of conversations.”
  • Take advantage of whatever else is happening on campus.
    “ ‘It is hard to change the direction of a static program (a body at rest tends to remain that way). Like turning the steering wheel on a parked car, little is accomplished. But when movement is initiated (even when it is not directly related to your specific dream), changing course is possible.’ Our new president charged us to ‘re-imagine’ our university in planning for our centennial. Our LI team infused itself into all formal re-envisioning teams to keep our vision of a ‘research-rich’ learning environment on the table— engaging everyone across campus in discussions that have led to the establishment of required capstone courses for all majors, and ‘experientially-rich’ courses are identified in catalogue listings.”
  • Know where the money is.
    “We’ve been very dogged in our efforts to keep those who locate and allocate resources— president/provost/CFO/CFR— regularly apprised of our goals and activities. As our vision furthers the president’s vision (environmental science as a signature program), we are particularly diligent in keeping him informed. Always being at the table proved to be priceless when discussions about a potential gift of land would have floundered without our ‘bird-in-the-hand’ idea about a nature sanctuary, immediately contiguous to the campus.”
  • Know when to stay out of the way.
    “What works is a provost with good ideas but, even better, who recognizes when others have good ideas and then works with us in a flexible way to make them happen. (From that provost: ‘Give them permission. Leaders have to give their colleagues the permission to have ideas, voice their ideas, and act on them.’)”
  • Know your current institutional circumstances; deal with them and take advantage of them.
    “Given transitions in top leadership positions, we’ve become very specific and vocal in laying out what we need to do, why, and what it will take to make it happen, asking for specific responses from particular individuals by a fixed time.”
  • Engage beyond the usual suspects.
    “Our group, at PKAL’s advice, took the campus directory to determine if and how people around the campus could help, and set priorities for contacting and engaging them. First priority was meeting with admission staff, a contact that has resulted in a new ‘science’ related admissions brochure, and a training session for tour guides.”
  • Focus on productive, meaningful discussions.
    “Our institutional culture is one in which the machinery of strategic planning impedes strategic planning, so our new approach is to keep conversations focused on the big picture and on how individuals can contribute to that whole. As people are coming to figure out how what they do fits into the larger picture, attitudes change and teamwork increases.”
  • Understand the barriers.
    “We have not found a coordinated way to tell our story, to our colleagues or to our students. People do not yet understand what we are about. “ Others barriers mentioned in initial applications to be a part of the PKAL Leadership Initiative, barriers now being addressed:
    • faculty innovators are isolated, seen as outside the mainstream
    • science is viewed by non-majors as irrelevant
    • students believe science is for people smarter than they think they are
    • we’ve not taken time to figure out the cost (real and lost) of making significant changes
    • our inflexible and intrenched governance system makes responding to new opportunities difficult and unsustainable
    • faculty have no interest in a collective effort to ‘get it right’ in regard to student learning
    • there is a complete lack of knowledge about how student learn, as well as about how to learn about that
    • in a time of shrinking resources, we are wrestling with how to institutionalize innovations that are beginning to transform us ‘at the edges’ so that they can transform the center and are sustainable.”

How to establish the infrastructure for the future

  • Hire at the interfaces.
    “Given our vision of an interdisciplinary learning environment, the new hires we are seeking are at the interfaces: biological mathematics, materials science, computational sciences, etc. And we are working closely with the development office to ensure these faculty start out strong.”
  • Mentor at the interfaces.
    “Rather than top-down mentoring, we’ve devised a structure in which people with different experiences and expertise engage in side-to-side mentoring. Our newer faculty have more experience with science at the cutting-edge and our established faculty have a greater sense of how to integrate their research into the learning of their students. This is win-win.”
  • Build curriculum at the interfaces.
    “Given our vision to graduate students who understand the relevance of science (STEM) in their lives, we are identifying courses as critical STEM issues, such as: the scientific analysis of national and international politics; global change; etc. These also include a ‘place-based’ approach in the general education course, dealing with issues in our geographic region that call for S&T solutions. Such curricula is reflected in our graduation requirements.”
  • Build the infrastructure at the interface.
    “Conversations about common research interests are an expected part of internal budget negotiations. By documenting shared use of major instrumentation, we have become more successful in securing major external grants from federal agencies. These conversations have also led to greater integration of research into instructional labs.”
  • Be flexible.
    “When the right idea emerges, we try to provide the time to translate that idea into a new course, proposal, etc. Often this means hiring a one-semester adjunct or rearranging class assignments within the department. Since all know that all ultimately gain, this is not a problem.”
  • Be ready to take risks.
    “Support those ‘going against the grain,’ especially in discussions about review and tenure. This might even mean refocusing an administrative structure to make it more amenable to different kinds of pedagogies, research directions. Consider the implications of dual careers, of people who fall between the cracks, of the need to value what happens at different career stages. Small internal grants to risk-takers most often realize significant return on that investment.”
  • Build a sandbox.
    “A best PKAL-idea we’ve adapted is to provide ‘sand-boxes’ for experimenting with new approaches. At first, these were just physical spaces, to try out new pedagogies as we planned our new science facility. But with spaces in transition on our campus, we’ve been able to assign semester-long spaces for teams of faculty to implement and assess plans for large-enrollment classes, for the best use of technologies, as well as to figure out the best technologies— placement and use. Each of these sandbox efforts has been monitored carefully, with those involved meeting regularly (just as our research faculty do).”
  • Model learning communities.
    “We orchestrated a week-long, role-playing design course, in which faculty from disciplines across the campus (architecture, engineering, social scientists) were given a design task from which they had to produce a prototype in five days. Learning to speak each other’s language was a challenge that turned into a delight.”
  • Nurture leaders.
    “As dean, I constantly talk about PKAL’s mantra of taking personal responsibility to make a difference— at meetings of department chairs and directors. Using the standard PKAL template (vision/goals/ strategies/actions) as the format for our chairs fall retreat, there is now wide-spread understanding about individual goals within the team of campus leaders. These continue to be shared at regular meetings during the year, so everyone is always on the same page. This sounds very simple, but our culture has not been one that attended to academic leadership. From a sense that leadership was dreaded, but someone had to do it, there is an increasing willingness to take responsibility. They know there will be administrative support in taking risks, but also that there will be rewards, both tangible and intangible.”
  • Put formal structures in place.
    “Without our learning/teaching center, or the dean’s widely— advertised and greatly-valued support for faculty development, we could not have brought people together in ways that allowed differences to emerge and commonalities to coalesce.”
  • Tell your story widely.
    “People are beginning to ask, ‘How did that happen?’ Thus, a mindfully-developed project has become a road-map for our entire community. We take time as a leadership group in thinking about and distilling our story, so we are all on the same page in the different conversations we engage in across campus. We’ve not yet arrived at the PKAL suggestion of an ‘elevator’ speech for our team, but soon....”
  • Keep the focus on the student.
    “Our goal is to make the learning of students a community responsibility, signaling that on our campus the scholarship of teaching is an intellectual activity. We’ve developed a series of questions about student learning that encourage continuous learning (of faculty) about learning. This has become very public— no more teaching as an isolated, behind-closed-doors activity.”
  • Turn your faculty into reflective practitioners.
    PKAL asks members of the Faculty for the 21st Century what they are learning about leadership. Some responses:
    • Leaders are not mythical creatures; the key traits of leadership— of interpersonal skills and goal-setting— are traits that I have.
    • It is critical to be self-aware, to know how to do what I want to do with the strengths and talents I know I have.
    • Leadership is more related to what one can accomplish than to one’s assigned role within the university; a leader is not someone who does something ‘to’ someone else, but rather someone who makes it possible for their community to accomplish something important.
    • I have come to understand leadership as the work of including all points of view and engaged different members of the community, of listening to and being able to take a host of seemingly disparate opinions, assemble and articulate a coherent vision of the future.
    • We invite faculty to write reflective essays on their teaching, and then to collaborate in distilling what works in different disciplines, at different career stages. This is a substantial risk, making teaching public, sharing deep thoughts with colleagues.
  • Understand the power of networks.
    “I am only beginning to get the power of networks and connections (as preached by PKAL) after some real-life experiential learning. The break-through came as I started to seek interdisciplinary and inter-institutional connections. Competition between institutions had limited our collaboration, and structural isolation (physical and schedule) had limited collegial collaborations on our campus. The catalyst was learning, at a professional meeting, about faculty learning communities— which we now are shaping on our campus— with over seventy faculty and staff participating.”

Some collective PKAL lessons. We are learning that:

  • Brainstorming is the best way to get good ideas.
  • The best advice comes from the most unexpected places.
  • Respect traditions in a time of transition.
  • Understand the complexity: For every complex problem there is a simple solution and it is wrong.
  • The pace of change is critical— too fast, people do not feel involved; too slow, the momentum is lost. Each organization has its own pace.
  • The primary skill of a leader is to ask probing questions, in ways that are not threatening or accusatory.
  • Finding the right champion is critical and champions and cheerleaders are not the same thing. Champions have access to resources.
  • Better be ready for the long haul. This takes time.

And finally, from one president.

“I have learned of the fragility of the academic enterprise. To institutionalize change in a sustainable manner, there must be systemic change at many different points: at the student/teacher interface, at the department/institutional interface, at the interface between the campus and the society it serves. If it fails at any of these points, the sustainability will be attenuated rapidly. The public good will not be served.”

So, these are some insights from people within the PKAL community who are taking serious responsibility for making a difference on their campuses, for their students now and into the future.

Join us in Kansas City to explore these and other ideas about leadership in undergraduate STEM.