PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Elizabeth Sklar

F21 Class of 2006 Statement

Elizabeth Sklar is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at CUNY-Brooklyn College.

There are many issues to address when answering the question of what undergraduate STEM will be like in 2016. There is also a distinction that must be made: what it will be like vs what it should be like. Many roadblocks stand in the way of progress, particularly when trying to make change in large institutions. Identifying what STEM undergraduate education should be like is only one part of the formula. Significant effort must also be expended in designing a roadmap that will get from here to there, for a range of different types of institutions.

The students entering as freshmen in the year 2016 will be entering the third grade in Fall 2006. These are students who, from much of the nation, are used to levels of technology in their classrooms and homes that far surpass what was available when we were in the third grade, or even what was prevalent when the freshmen entering college today were in the third grade. While today we spend resources educating undergraduates about the basics of technology (e.g., how to use Microsoft Office or how to conduct advanced searches on the internet), these same skills are also currently being taught in elementary school to those third graders who will begin college in Fall 2016. These students will enter college already prepared to use and integrate technology in their daily lives as undergraduates.

While pedagogical research in the last thirty years has identified a number of paradigms that promote learner-centered learning (e.g., constructionism and learning by design), most university educators follow the old-fashioned and out-dated "lecture" method where a professor speaks formally to a class of students who take notes and seldom ask questions. However, some innovative programs are beginning to use more progressive methodologies incorporating problem-solving and project-based curricula, for example, the engineering school at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada. Their unique approach, now entering its fifth year of implementation, presents the entire engineering undergraduate program in two-week problem-and-project-based units. Class sizes are capped at 15 students, and professors provide intense, two-week courses focused on specific problems, delivered almost exclusively as labs and discussion. This meant an adjustment for faculty, who teach intensively one or more of these units per term, but in compensation, they have blocks of time to concentrate on their research. The benefits for students are lower student-teacher ratios, more hands-on time, more interaction with their professors and overall a more focused learning experience.

It is hoped that within 10 years innovative approaches like the one at Sherbrooke will be seen more widely, if not in entire schools then at least for some classes, programs and departments. STEM education will benefit from incorporating intense, hands-on, problem-based environments in which students experience knowledge as they acquire it and students learn to work in teams. University administrators and academic department heads must make teaching a priority in order for faculty to have the time to train for, prepare and deliver innovative new methods. Only then will undergraduate STEM learning environments begin to afford students experiences in which they can truly understand and assimilate new knowledge.