May 12, 2015

Convocation on #DiscoveryResearch at NAS, Day 1

Posted by Laura Guertin

NAS building on Constitution Avenue in DC

NAS building on Constitution Avenue in DC

This week, I am serving as part of the Organizing Committee for the Convocation on Integrating Discovery-Based Research Into the Undergraduate Curriculum. Sponsored by grants from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, this event is being held May 11-13 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.  Approximately 70 participants from universities, organizations and agencies across the United States (with one representative from Hong King) have gathered with the overall goal of pooling our experiences and producing a report that will be useful to faculty and administrators considering introducing more research into their undergraduate curriculum.  Specifically, we will be exploring the following:

  • What models have been developed to engage larger numbers of undergraduates in research using an academic year course-based format? Is this general strategy viable for all STEM disciplines, and all class levels, from freshman to senior?
  • Is the evidence base currently robust enough that we can we identify best practices for implementation, considering different goals and different approaches? What are the most important challenges?
  • Can these best practices serve as drivers of institutional cultural change, tackling some of the present barriers to access, and are there examples where they have done so?
  • Is it possible to scale up to all students, without losing essential elements of the research experience?
  • Can we recommend best practices for dissemination, for “startup” support? What are the most cost-effective strategies?
  • Can a shared research agenda help us to resolve some of these questions?

As a common theme, the convocation is considering equity and access issues for all students, with an emphasis on those populations that are underrepresented in STEM.

The mission of this convocation is grounded in Recommendation #2 of the February 2012 report, “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” from the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST, 2012), which urges the STEM education community and funding agencies to:

“Advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses.”  [The report justifies this recommendation as follows:]  “Traditional introductory laboratory courses at the undergraduate level generally do not capture the creativity of STEM disciplines. They often involve repeating classical experiments to reproduce known results, rather than engaging students in experiments with the possibility of true discovery. Students may infer from such courses that STEM fields involve repeating what is known to have worked in the past rather than exploring the unknown. Engineering curricula in the first two years have long made use of design courses that engage student creativity. Recently, research courses in STEM subjects have been implemented at diverse institutions, including universities with large introductory course enrollments.
These courses make individual ownership of projects and discovery feasible in a classroom setting, engaging students in authentic STEM experiences and enhancing learning and, therefore, they provide models for what should be more widely implemented.” (pp. iv-v)

This evening, we heard brief comments from the sponsors and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Some of their comments that I made note of to keep in my mind during this week and beyond included:

  • We need to keep in mind 3 key nouns: feasibility, efficacy, and value of discovery-based laboratory work (Elizabeth Boylan, Sloan Foundation);
  • We need more than a report to understand and document what it takes for students to persist and complete in STEM areas (Ryan Kelsey, Helmsley Charitable Trust);
  • We all need all to consider one question with regards to Course-based Research Experiences (CREs): what is the “research” part really about? (David Asai, HHMI);
  • We need to keep in mind three important items from the student perspective: (1) students should know that they are engaged in a “real” scientific problem: (2) students should know that what they’re doing matters to the scientific community – i.e., they are not alone (3) students should know how their discoveries contribute to the field (David Asai, HHMI);
  • The President has 20 months remaining to make a difference in this country, and the President is aware of and eager to launch initiatives that will have a lasting effect. Having research courses for freshmen not only leads to lasting learning and retention in STEM, it impacts the overall perception of STEM (Jo Handelsman, OSTP).

The next set of comments was provided by James Gentile, the Chair of the BOSE Consensus Study Committee.  His thoughts included: What are the definitions out there of undergraduate research? We need to be clear about the word “authentic” and also focus on the future. We need students to focus on collaboration, not competition. And we need the citizenry of future to be aware and understand the complexity of science, when they go to the voting booth and/or read a newspaper.

The evening ended with a keynote by S. James Gates, Jr., co-chair of the Authoring Committee for the PCAST report “Engage to Excel.”  His talk was titled “Think Different: Allowing STEM Precociousness To Bloom.”  He skillfully took us through the background of the PCAST report and focused on the drivers: American tradition around education and the economy; the American demographic distribution; the American economy in an era of global competition; and millennials and education.  His examples and references were on point and kept bringing us back to the PCAST report recommendations.  For example, self-driving technology is arriving faster than rules to govern the vehicles (there was a NPR story yesterday on this very topic).  This technological advancement will force long-haul drivers out of jobs, just as telephone operators are a thing of the past.  We were also encouraged to explore the New York Times interactive for The Changing Nature of Middle-Class Jobs and the book The Race Between Education and Technology.  Technology is changing the rules of jobs, so we better be thinking about the value-added and benefits of universities to secure the American dream and striking the right balance of workers, trainers, and employers.  After showcasing several examples of undergraduate research models and programs involving students across all grade levels, including those that focus on students in the first two years, James Gates ended with the following statement: “Students are capable of making contributions and doing research.  We should be able to figure this out.”

More posts will be coming with items from the Convocation.  You can also follow the sound bytes making their way on Twitter with the hashtag #DiscoveryResearch.