Richard A. McCray

University of Colorado at Boulder
2002 DTS Award

Richard A. McCray
George Gamow Distinguished Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences
University of Colorado at Boulder

NSF Award Recognition

Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Richard A. McCray

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

S/he would notice that, the students are much more visible than in a traditional class. I don't lecture much. I spend most of my time probing what students have learned and working through their misconceptions. Students are expected to come to class with prepared answers to questions that have been posted on the class web site. Often, students will disagree. On the best days they engage in heated debate. We don't try to cover as much material as in a traditional lecture session. I try to run a student-centered classroom. So they do most of the work.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

It was an incremental process. First, I became very interested in the web as a resource for content delivery. So, over a couple of years, I wrote an on-line hypertext (see that is rich with multimedia resources and links to many external sites that students can explore. That was fun and interesting for me, and it still is-I am always revising it.

Once I had written the hypertext, I realized that it would be redundant for me to stand up in front of the class and lecture on the same material. So I felt free to use my classroom time to engage the students in developing their own understanding of the material that was presented in the hypertext. I had to learn a whole new skill set to ensure that the students take responsibility for their own learning. I'm still learning, and it is tremendous fun.

After that, I thought I should try to take a step further. I found two programs-one supported by the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign and the other supported by NSF/DUE-that offered the opportunity to apply for grants for transformation of undergraduate courses using web-based resources. But when I began to write proposals and read some of the relevant literature, I realized that a hypertext was only one possibility that the web offered for transformation of undergraduate education. So I proposed to purchase hardware and develop software to establish a collaborative learning environment, whereby I could divide a large lecture class into learning teams of roughly 12 students each. I employed undergraduate learning assistants to guide the learning teams.

I got lucky, and both proposals were funded. Since then I have been fully committed to push my project as far as I can.

Were there risks in doing this? What made you persevere?

If one is going to make a serious attempt at innovation in undergraduate education, it's not a risk, it's a certainty that the effort is going to cost a great deal more time than carrying out one's teaching duties in the conventional way.

Innovation in education is like any experimental science. If you don't risk failure, you aren't pushing the envelope. So I try a lot of things. Some work, others don't.

Most students are pretty conservative. They have certain expectations of what a college science class will be, and they feel stressed when they have to deal with an unconventional format or unconventional expectations. For example, many students become uncomfortable when they see that they are expected to answer a question in the presence of 200 other students. And many students are surprisingly resistant to collaborative work. They want to study on their own, and they don't want other students to know what they are learning (or not learning). It's a very interesting challenge to find ways to overcome these barriers.

I think the key to effective innovation is to build a lot of feedback mechanisms into the course design. That enables one to discover and correct mistakes very quickly. Also, I have found that students will cut me a lot of slack if they know that they are participating in worthwhile experiment, and that I am prepared to respond quickly when they run into difficulties.

The most effective feedback mechanism that I have found is the use of undergraduate learning assistants. Students in the class see them as peers and are much more open with them about what they like and dislike than they would be with me or a graduate teaching assistant. I meet with the learning assistants every week. Through these meetings I gain a much better understanding of how students are responding than I could otherwise.

What made me persevere? This has been my most interesting and enjoyable experience I have had in my long teaching career. And certainly, the grants that I received from the Pew Program and NSF/DUE have been a big help.

Also, it helps a lot that I am at a stage of my career where I am completely secure. I have already demonstrated that I am a competent researcher. I'm not risking much if I choose to devote a substantial chunk of my time to educational innovation at the cost of some of my research activities.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

The Chancellor and Provost of my campus have been tremendously supportive of my efforts. Also, on this campus we have begun to build a small community of scientists who are very interested in the transformation of undergraduate science education. I have had fruitful interactions with a few members of the College of Education on this campus.

I have learned a lot about assessment and evaluation of undergraduate science courses from Elaine Seymour and her group at the Bureau of Sociological Research at the University of Colorado.

On a national scale, I have been working with a few astronomers who have interests similar to mine. We're committed to an "open source" philosophy, so we're trying to build a resource base on the web that is available to everybody. The American Astronomical Society is very interested in the transformation of the introductory Astronomy 101 course and I'm part of that effort.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

I don't have any easy answers for this one. The culture in science departments at many research universities doesn't provide much incentive for young faculty members to devote substantial effort to innovation in education. Innovation takes time, which will only come at the expense of research or personal time. The general recipe for getting tenure and promotion at a Research 1 university is: do a competent job in teaching (by existing standards); distinguish yourself in research.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

The problem at many state research universities is that-while they are rich in external support for research-they are flat broke when it comes to money to support undergraduate education. A typical introductory science course can provide one professor for 100-200 students. Given that, it should be no great surprise that small private colleges are much more effective than research universities in producing scientists.

It helps a lot when the top administrators are committed to improving undergraduate education, as is the case at the University of Colorado. A little personal attention and support from campus leaders can help to overcome the conservatism of science departments regarding educational reform. Our administrators could help a lot more if they had more financial resources. We need help from the business community, particularly high-tech industry. They stand to benefit most from improvement of undergraduate science education.

I think the culture is changing, on my campus and nationwide. But we still have a long way to go.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts?

Money talks. The reason that the US has such distinguished research universities is that the nation made a commitment to support excellent research through a competitive peer reviewed system. We need a similar national commitment to support innovation in undergraduate science education. I can't think of a more effective way to do this than the current grant programs supported by NSF/DUE and several private foundations. These foundations simply need to keep doing what they are doing and expand their efforts if they can. The NSF Career Grants Program sends out a powerful message to universities that innovation in science education is every bit as important as innovation in science research. I hope that the DTS Awards will do the same.

What is the project you are undertaking as part of your DTS award? How can others be involved?

My project has four components:

  1. I plan to continue developing my web-based course and to document the resources so that they are more readily available to the world;

  2. I plan to work with interested faculty members in other departments on my campus to help them transform sections of their introductory science courses;

  3. I plan to work with faculty in the College of Education and in the STEM departments at my campus to develop enriched opportunities to attract undergraduates into careers in K-12 education; and

  4. As chair of the NRC Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, I hope to contribute to the improvement of undergraduate STEM education nationwide. I have a special interest in understanding better the potential of Information Technology to improve undergraduate education.