PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Laura Blasi

What works: Observations from the field

Laura Blasi

Laura Blasi is currently an evaluation specialist in the Office of Assessment and Institutional Research (A&IR) at Saint Leo University near Tampa after serving for four years as a faculty member in the Department of Educational Research, Technology, and Leadership (ERTL) at the University of Central Florida (UCF.)

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?

“Working on the frontiers” sounds so much more powerful than collaborating in the margins. I am working within STEM education because of the vocations of others I have met along the way. Each individual had his or her own vision for the future focusing on education, while advancing teaching and learning as the foundation for diversity and democracy in the United States. Some could clearly articulate that vision, others did not, but they could speak through actions reaching beyond themselves and their own career goals. “Diversity and democracy” sounds like rhetoric when you read it in text, but it is something we all know intuitively: study in the STEM fields develops individual expertise (inquiry and analysis) and through this study it becomes possible to also have an impact on our communities (design and development). STEM education holds the possibility of developing individual expertise across a diverse range of students, while allowing them to develop the skills and knowledge needed to be productive citizens. The problem is: How can we believe that it is possible for our students to reach those goals if they are weeded out in a first year course in an auditorium of two hundred others? What if they can’t even make it out of high school to take a seat in that auditorium? Access and accessibility are key issues.

When developed with relevance to life outside of the laboratory or classroom, study in STEM fields can offer the possibility of changing the lives of students who live in low socio-economic neighborhoods. The change is evident as students move from reacting to environmental conditions toward actively shaping the landscape for their own children. The interest in social consequences of technology (e.g. C. A. Bowers and Jacques Ellul) and the connection between lives lived and our relationship to the land (e.g. Wendell Berry) are being realized outside of STEM classrooms, while inside the classroom we have decades of study on the social construction of reality in science (e.g. Bruno Latour, Karin Knorr-Cetina). I am not claiming to say anything new.

In both aspects of our lives – inside and outside of the classroom – the opportunities we create for our students will alter the future from the probable to reach for the possible. At some point despite the expectations of family and career, each of us has the opportunity to have to rise to the occasion, beyond our individual and immediate needs. This as the poet Ranier Maria Rilke has written, when we know “ being swept along is not enough.”

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

In my own work, along with others, I am interested in placing actual instruments and data in the hands of students through technology, while finding ways to develop scientific inquiry and communication. This means conveying the stories and results of scientific discovery and transforming them in ways that are accessible for younger students and useful for teachers. Beyond the collaboration which leads to design and development there is a whole other aspect regarding promotion and training linked to current systemic initiatives in education. This work builds on individual career goals, and with careful coordination and collaboration it does not have to compete or displace. However, it requires the interest and effort to work to create something that did not exist before the endeavor. This work is not always recognized in the systems of merit in academe. The traditions we hold to on the tenure-bound-track (self-promotion, solo work, convergent rather than divergent thinking, and publication directed at the research community as the coin of the realm) have put the largest system of higher education in the world on a collision course between convention and creation.

Innovative provosts and presidents will lead the way to new reward systems linked to innovation balanced by concern for equity. The discussion is on-going regarding the crisis the U.S. faces regarding developing and sustaining innovation (Richard Florida, Joel Mokyr). For provosts and presidents in higher education to take incremental steps toward expanding current reward systems in ways the recognizes and supports innovation, they need support and encouragement from foundations and national leadership initiatives. Higher education is a business and cannot afford to take risks that impact the bottom-line, with so many employees and local economies at stake.

This change will happen at the university-level alongside other changes which are challenging traditional approaches (such as Harold Varmus’ work on the accessibility of scientific research). Focused pilot projects developed for sustainability and scale, rather than for large sweeping reforms, will provide one way of initiating change while minimizing risk. While we have seen grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation directed at developing sustainable, scalable projects, we need to foster larger efforts to impact institutions such as The Integrative Learning Project: Opportunities to Connect project funded by the Carnegie Foundation.