Just weeks after France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, visited the University of Arizona to learn about the institution's renowned research and teaching, the agency's division leader for undergraduate education toured the campus.
Susan Singer, who leads the NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education, was at the UA this week to speak about nationwide efforts to increase student interest and retention in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.
Representing one of the most important federal funding agencies in the U.S., Singer shared her enthusiasm for the UA's STEM activities, particularly those launched under the Association of American Universities initiative to improve undergraduate STEM education. The AAU is an association of 62 leading research universities in the U.S. and Canada.
"The exciting thing about the AAU grant you have is that you have frontier scientists doing amazing things, and you have people on the cutting edge of education research," Singer said Monday, speaking during a seminar titled "Vision and Change in Undergraduate Education."
Dozens of UA students, faculty and administrators attended the talk, during which Singer detailed the federal government's plan for catalyzing STEM education. Ultimately, the nation must improve STEM teaching for the benefit of driving the nation's global competitive advantage and economic strength, Singer said.
In 2013, the UA became one of eight institutions in the U.S. to be named an AAU partner in a major nationwide initiative, funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, that is reshaping how students learn and how faculty teach in STEM.
In the same year, the UA's Never Settle strategic plan was launched. Among other priorities, the plan encourages the campus community to reimagine student engagement, involving all students in applied experiences to be better prepared for the workforce.
Singer's three-day visit was part of a continuing effort to share the growing importance and impact of the UA's STEM-related activities.
"Our goal for Dr. Singer's visit was to receive feedback on our project," said Gail Burd, the UA's senior vice provost for academic affairs and principal investigator on the UA's AAU grant.
During her visit, Singer observed UA Distinguished Professor Paul Blowers and John Pollard, the UA's director of general chemistry, teach courses redesigned under the AAU initiative. Modeled on active-learning principles, both documented evidence that students in the redesigned courses are retained in STEM and perform better than those who do not.
After visiting Blowers' class, Singer said: "I thought, 'Wow, I could have been an engineer if I had been taught that way,'" later noting that merely adopting emergent technologies will not necessarily drive student interest or success in STEM.
"Students need to encounter a problem and get curious first, like the chemistry class I attended earlier. Then we need to let them get to the solution," she said. "That is a terrific way to learn."
In many ways, the UA's STEM activities align with many priorities and concerns that Singer detailed during her seminar.
Singer reported nationwide data indicating that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in degree attainment for individuals ages 24 to 44, and that those from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds have not seen notable growth in attainment for a period dating back to the 1960s.
"We really need everybody to be contributing productively in our society. But something is shifting pretty rapidly.... There is a huge pool of people out there whose talents we are not using," Singer said, adding that another national imperative is to improve science literacy for all.
"Together, we really need to push hard to create a globally competitive workforce. It is important to have a scientifically literate populace. It's not just about producing more scientists and engineers."
Singer also spoke about ways by which innovative institutions are helping to improve degree attainment, particularly in the STEM fields.
Such institutions, Singer said, are creating a "blurring of boundaries" by blending face-to-face instruction with technology-enhanced learning environments, formal and informal learning, and academic teachings with civic engagement.
"Some of you are already all over this," Singer said.
Singer also emphasized that enhancing the STEM fields is not only about driving more students toward related degrees, but also changing the way students engage with the disciplines.
"We need to develop flexible, fluid learners," she said. Therefore, she said, it is essential that faculty rely on emergent, evidence-based teaching practices to ensure improved academic outcomes for students.
Also during her visit, Singer learned about ways the UA is training STEM faculty to experiment with new approaches to teaching, to help foster collaborative classroom environments. In this effort, students are seen as teaching-learning partners, and faculty regularly bring real-world data and experiences to the classroom so that students can develop solutions for current challenges.
Deb Tomanek, the UA's associate vice president for instruction and assessment, said she and others were especially grateful that Singer emphasized the importance of relying on learning-sciences research to develop and adopt new teaching practices.
That's what AAU STEM project faculty are doing at the UA, she said.
"It is important for all of us, as educators, to inform our decisions about how to teach with what is known about how our students learn," said Tomanek, also the co-principal investigator on the UA's AAU grant and a molecular and cellular biology professor. "Dr. Singer's presentation and the time she spent talking with us here at the UA elevated the importance of the message that our project works so hard to deliver.
"Time and time again, evidence-based teaching approaches have been shown to result in better learning for STEM students than traditional lectures. We just need to keep working to implement these effective approaches in more classrooms. When a high-level NSF person like Dr. Singer delivers the same message, what a great day for undergraduate STEM education at the UA."