PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Alan B. Griffith

F21 Class of 2006 Statement

Alan Griffith is Assistant Professor of Biology at University of Mary Washington.

Question: What will undergraduate STEM be like in 2016, given the urgency of new challenges and opportunities facing our nation?

While educational reform may be driven from the organization and leadership of national initiatives, changes in learning goals and teaching strategies must start with individuals and spread to larger scales. I will, therefore, take a very personal perspective in answering this question. I can best talk about the state of STEM education in my institution. I also can best describe the urgent challenges from a personal and, in this case, disciplinary perspective. What are the urgent challenges in ecology, and the environmental sciences? Last, I can best address current opportunities for change from my view of my teaching colleagues at home and in other institutions. From these mostly very personal and local observations, I will draw a picture of the changes I hope to see and experience in the next ten years.

The urgent challenges for STEM teaching arise from the urgent challenges I see in ecology and conservation, my areas of research. These challenges, broadly speaking, fall in the area of global environmental change. A few of the specific issues include global climate change, loss of biodiversity, and expansion of invasive species worldwide. By their very nature, global changes impact all communities, not just science communities. Some business communities have begun to recognize the significance and impacts of global changes, as evidenced in research by the insurance industry (http://www.abi.org.uk/climatechange). Understanding climate change also requires multi-disciplinary knowledge from STEM and beyond. In addition, our understanding of these global changes is in flux. So, the context for STEM education for these challenges is a changing global reality and a changing understanding of this reality.

STEM education must be prepared to meet this complex challenge from the perspective of a broad audience. Global change and our understanding of these changes will continue after our students leave our classrooms. Hence, giving students the facts about a world in flux would leave people consistently behind our curve of knowledge. This suggests that STEM education must move beyond the basic facts to teach the lifetime learning skills necessary to keep up with the changing world and our changing knowledge of the world.

The change opportunities in STEM education arise from the broad support I see for changing the way I teach. First, there is broad agreement in how to improve undergraduate teaching and what works to improve teaching. National organizations, like PKAL, act as clearinghouses for information and ideas about teaching. They also act to organize and motivate change in teaching at the local level. Second, I see support for change from my colleagues and administration at the University of Mary Washington.

Given all this, my personal 10-year goal for meeting the challenges before me in ScienceTEM teaching is as follows. First, expand the use of student centered / student active learning in my lectures. Student active approaches have been shown to increase student understanding of concepts and often require learning skills not found in lectures. Second, shift focus from information / fact delivery to an increased focus on delivering learning skills and a constructivist approach to learning. Our knowledge of significant issues is constantly changing. If students also learn how to learn, they will have the skills to construct / change their personal knowledge and to grow with our knowledge of global systems. Third, reorganize laboratory experiences to look like a series of short, student-driven research projects. A common misconception about science is how the process of scientific discovery happens. When students understand the process better, they will better grasp scientific advance. Last, improve my knowledge of the literature on learning. Much is known about how people learn and what teaching strategies work with learning and cognitive development. Until I personally have a good understanding of the literature on learning, I will not be able to take full advantage of what we know. With the local and national support for changing my teaching strategies, I will help prepare undergraduate students to meet the global challenges that face us all.