Occasional Paper II: What Works: Leadership— Challenges for the Future

Moving Into the Future: Next Steps in the Reform Process

Joan S. Girgus
Director--Pew Science Program in Undergraduate Education
Princeton University

As we approach the 21st century, we are moving into a new phase in undergraduate science educational reform with a different framework, different context, and different goals and, consequently, with a need to ask new questions, recognize new realities, and invent new approaches. What follows are four important lessons on the nature of reform to guide us on our journey. Though learned in the context of reforming undergraduate science education, like all good lessons, these can be applied equally well to other reform movements.

Lesson #1. The questions are always changing.
Lesson #2. No reform is ever finished; change is the only constant.
Lesson #3. Collaboration is required for real educational reform.
Lesson #4. We must get educational reform to spiral.

Lesson #1. The questions are always changing.

Initial efforts to improve science and mathematics education were focused on encouraging more students to major and pursue graduate study in the sciences and math. Recent estimates of needs for mathematicians and scientists in the work force and academy are lower than those of the mid-1980s. Therefore the need to produce more professional scientists and mathematicians is no longer paramount.

What, then, is motivating the reform of undergraduate science education today?

In order for all citizens to understand and resolve many of today's most pressing and critical issues, a solid scientific knowledge base is essential. In a world where these issues confront every individual, not scientists alone, we must be educating citizens sufficiently prepared to make informed and responsible choices.

Thus, an educational reform movement that was sparked by worries about too few majors has expanded into a movement determined to infuse everyone's education, to ensure that graduates of our colleges and universities have functional knowledge in the sciences and mathematics.

As our focus develops and expands, so do the questions we ask ourselves. Instead of asking how we can persuade more students to pursue majors and graduate work in science, we began asking how we can interest more students in studying science period. Instead of asking what pedagogical approaches work best for majors, we began asking what approaches work best for everyone.

As we plan our next steps and try to imagine how the future will unfold, we must be mindful that the overarching questions will continually change. We must be prepared to keep our goals and approaches moving forward on the road to reform.

Conversation counts. Every successful collaboration depends upon opportunities for participants to develop mutual respect and explore shared priorities and interests.

Lesson #2. No reform is ever finished; change is the only constant.

Individuals continue to evolve and change in response to new opportunities and demands, so do institutions, departments, disciplines and curricular and pedagogical innovations. In order for reforms to remain viable, change agents must regularly pause, take a deep breath, and ask some specific questions:

  • What have we accomplished?
  • How have our accomplishments changed not only the questions of reform, but the very environment in which the reform must be realized?
  • What are the next crucial steps?
  • And, finally, how are we going to take those next steps? How are we going to get from here to there?

We are at a crossroads in the reform of undergraduate science and mathematics education. The idea that science and math faculty might initially spend their time rethinking and reconstructing what and how they teach has been embraced by students, parents, alumni, administrators, the public at large, and the faculty themselves. The idea that science matters to everyone has achieved widespread approval.

Thus not only have the overarching questions changed, but the specific questions have changed as well:

  • How do we turn reformed courses into reformed curricula?
  • How do we transform individual innovators into innovative communities?
  • How do we signal the value that we place on education, and encourage faculty to devote their energies to educational questions?

Lesson #3. Collaboration is required for real educational reform.

Curricular and pedagogical innovations too often take the following form: someone has a good analysis of a local problem that is common, in some form, to many institutions; the originator works hard to find an approach that will solve the problem locally and succeeds; others, impressed with the success of the innovation in the original setting, want to use it to solve their problems.

But an innovation that works well in one context cannot merely be transplanted into a different context. As innovations move out from their original settings, they must be adapted to the dynamics and needs of each new environment.

Equally important as collaborations between institutions are collaborations within. We need to ask: how can we get people to think about change in a larger context in curricula rather than in courses, in departments rather than individual faculty, in institutions rather than in individual departments?

Imagine a series of collaborative opportunities that spiral outward from the faculty member as a series of concentric circles. In the innermost circle are colleagues in the faculty member's own department, in the next circle are colleagues in intellectually adjacent departments, in the next circle are deans, provosts, and presidents, in the next are colleagues in other institutions. If we can learn how to replace admiration with collaboration as we move from circle to circle, we might be able to institutionalize a particular reform, move the reform into the curriculum, and adapt the reform to the needs of a growing number of institutions.

On the first day of the PKAL Symposium in San Antonio, Skidmore President David Porter challenged the Skidmore team to develop an introductory science course for non-science students.

The eventual outcome of this challenge is a laboratory science course that will be taught by a chemist, hydrogeologist, and geologist as an interactive learning experience in which collaborative inquiry is the primary educational technique.

The course will be an interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental issues associated with Loughberry Lake, a reservoir close to the Skidmore campus. The context of the study area is in the lake's existence as a water supply system, the one from which the students drink daily. The problem will be approached both chemically (by studying water characteristics) and geologically (by delineating the drainage basin and gound water system), using the 1988 DEC Loughberry Lake Report as a base line.

The outcome will be an analysis of how the lake reflects both the groundwater and stream systems and the natural and human environments. The course will also raise broader cultural concerns, e.g., e3nergy and its uses, the impact of our lifestyle on the environment, climate and global warming, and the Gaia Hypothesis. Ultimately, the students' focus will be on themselves and their own impact on an environmental system.

John J. Thomas
Geology Department, Skidmore College


Case Study:
COSEN: Working Together to Achieve Diversity in Science and Mathematics.

Collaboration is the cornerstone of all projects in the Pew Science Program for Undergraduate Education. What have we learned about collaboration since the program began seven years ago?

  • The experience of collaboration, working with like-minded souls on problems of common interest, is extremely energizing and lots of fun.
  • Collaboration can be a remarkably productive way of getting things done, working together is often far more effective than working alone.
  • Committed, energetic leadership and smooth-running administrative processes are as crucial to the success of collaborative projects as they are to every other kind of enterprise.
  • Collaboration permits you to do things you probably would not or could not do alone.
  • Although demanding and time-consuming, collaboration can have a large multiplier effect: a great deal can be achieved from a relatively small investment of money and individual faculty time and effort.
  • Most importantly, conversation counts, Every successful collaboration depends upon opportunities for participants to develop mutual respect and explore shared priorities and interests. This applies equally to individuals working on a project, to a department revising its curriculum, and to institutions engaged in strategic planning.

We need to be asking: how can we get people to think about change in a larger context--in curricula rather than in courses, in departments rather than individual faculty, in institutions rather than in individual departments?

Lesson #4. We must get educational reform to spiral.

Our attempts to promote a "spiral effect" within the reform movement will inevitably lead us to a new series of questions, the answers to which will be the next set of lessons even as they lead us to the next set of question.

  • If, in moving outward from the creative faculty, original analysis, and innovative solution, there are concentric circles of potential collaborators, how does the faculty member move from circle to circle?
  • How does the faculty member turn the concentric circles into a spiral?
  • How does the faculty member engage colleagues, deans, and presidents in the reform enterprise?
  • How does the faculty member encourage those involved with reform to work together?
  • How can the innovation take on a useful life of its own?

These are some of the next questions on the road to reform in undergraduate science education. We must seek answers to these questions if we are to sustain the momentum and specify the next steps and the next questions.

What Works--Asking the Right Questions

Collaboration can be a remarkably productive way of getting things done, working together is often far more effective than working alone.