PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Donald Stearns

What works: Observations from the field

Donald Stearns is Professor and Chair of Microbiology at Wagner College.

Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.

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

While teaching and doing research as a junior faculty member in my discipline at a major state university for several years, I learned that the hiring, assessment, and reward processes were not designed to enhance teaching and learning as primary goals. I understood that and, for a while reasoned that self-motivated, proactive students would benefit from the educational system as presented. Over the years however, it became clearer to me that, while that is true, it is also true that these proactive students are few in number and certainly constitute a minority. I began to become concerned with the level of scientific literacy and understanding in this country: how might most students, who are not science majors, make decisions as voters in a highly technical society with little if any real understanding of science? The more I saw how little our society understands even fundamental scientific concepts, the more I realized that doing disciplinary research without connecting to the larger society, as I had been trained to do, was inadequate when confronted with a scientifically illiterate, voting democracy. I saw the consequences—and still do—of a society ruled by public policies that are not based on scientific evidence, when society as a whole does not seem to care about science.

I saw more opportunity to address my concern at Wagner College, an institution that emphasizes quality teaching as its highest educational priority. Working not only as a faculty member but also in various administrative capacities over the years at Wagner—department chair, active participant on college committees, associate dean of the faculty, special assistant to the provost, associate provost, registrar—I found myself taking advantage of opportunities to enhance student learning—opportunities that I knew about because of my understanding of the inner workings of the system. I began my personal transition by designing courses not from the perspective of the book chapters relative to the academic calendar but instead by keeping the focus on enhanced student learning. I joined appropriate organizations and participated in workshops to learn more. I met encouraging people with interesting ideas. Some of us got together with a common sense of urgency, knowing that a variety of effective pedagogies were needed to address diverse educational situations. We collaborated on grants dealing with this issue.

One of my administrative duties involved overseeing academic assessment programs. Hired initially for my sense of responsibility rather than my assessment experience, I learned on the job how the assessment process, if focused on student learning goals, can be effectively used to enhance academic programs. I began to research effective learning that could be assessed in ways that are not entirely anecdotal. It was during this period that I published my first peer-reviewed article not on research in my discipline but instead on research focusing on the teaching and learning of my discipline. That was a milestone for me.

Research that focuses on teaching and learning, like disciplinary research, must consider the variables and try to approach an understanding, through hypothesis testing, of what practices are best under which conditions. Perhaps the best teachers among us correctly intuit how to maximize student learning. If true, that would still leave most teachers without a workable plan, since the assessment data indicate that, in general, nonscience students are not learning science. Disciplinary research is important, but only when considered so by the larger society that it serves and which decides to pay for it. It thus becomes important to pursue research that improves everyone’s understanding of science. My research is now designed with that goal in mind.