STEM Student Success through the CSUF Catalyst Center

California State University–Fullerton (CSUF), especially within the university’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (CNSM), has a history of supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and innovation in instruction. Even the most recent efforts trace back to CSUF’s National Science Foundation-funded Undergraduate Reform Initiative (URI), which proposed to retain greater numbers of beginning science and engineering majors by providing these students with knowledge and experience essential in the modern workplace; ensuring that future teachers have the understanding, skills, and attitudes necessary to promote student success; and educating a citizenry more literate in science and engineering.

Two important outcomes of this project were (1) the planting of the seed of active learning in the classroom in STEM instruction and (2) the hiring of discipline-based educators to complement the math educators who were already members of the department of mathematics. Through this project, three science education faculty members were hired to bring discipline-based science education research to the college and what was known as the Center for Enhancing Science and Mathematics Education. Several years later, a restructuring of the program led to the re-envisioning of the center, now known simply as the Catalyst Center. These centers fostered many innovative curriculum change projects over time, including the adoption of supplemental instruction (SI). SI sessions were added to several courses in math, biology, chemistry, and physics that had a high percentage of DFW grades and impact all STEM majors. Data collected since the inception of the program in 2005 indicate that attending five or more SI sessions during the semester increased persistence and improved graduation rates for all participants and narrowed—or, in some classes, closed—the achievement gap for underrepresented minorities and women.

Establish Vision

Despite many efforts, by 2012 there appeared to be a waning of the campus push of the late 1990s and early 2000s to introduce active learning to the science classrooms. At issue were the high stakes for faculty experimenting with active learning modes—some faculty receive lower student evaluations in active learning classes, despite data indicating that students learn more. And because developing the skills to offer and manage effective active learning experiences is a long-term process that requires support, many faculty, especially untenured and part-time faculty, abandon the effort before becoming proficient. Following several meetings with vigorous discussion of the state of active learning in the CNSM classroom, the Keck/PKAL Framework Change project team arrived at a vision for their work: to develop a culture in CNSM in which instructors—tenure-track faculty (TTF), non-TTF, and teaching associates—use evidence-based, scientific approaches to teaching and student learning in classroom, online, and laboratory instruction in courses across the curriculum. The goal was to establish a program that could be institutionalized to provide professional development for the CNSM faculty to engage in scientific teaching.

Examine Landscape and Conduct Capacity Analysis

However, the newly convened project team found that there was a lack of consensus on the existing state of affairs regarding scientific teaching in CNSM. While they had excellent support from the office of institutional research, the data collected by the institution did not include any information about faculty teaching practices, attitudes, or aspirations. Because the question “What percentage of the CNSM faculty members were using evidence-based, scientific approaches to teaching and student learning in classroom, online, and laboratory instruction in courses across the curriculum?” remained unanswered, the team decided to administer two surveys: one based on Trigwell and Prosser’s Approaches to Teaching Inventory (2004) and a survey adapted from Henderson (2008) and Tanner (2013).

Identify and Analyze Challenges and Opportunities

Results from these surveys suggested that faculty wanted the opportunity to be creative, have agency in adopting research-based instructional strategies, and have mini-grant support that allowed them to pilot various approaches and gave them flexibility to adopt strategies that made sense for their particular circumstances. Also, there was interest in small group discussions, semester-long partnerships with researchers, and a multiday summer workshop, each garnering about ten responses. The survey responses suggested that a single professional development strategy might not be appropriate for our faculty. Similarly, the faculty responses with respect to barriers have implications for professional development strategies. The greatest barrier identified was not at all surprising: time. The project team concluded that faculty stipends and course releases would be absolutely essential to the success of the project. Other challenges, such as class size and room configuration, can be addressed through professional development. Some strategies, such as peer instruction, are explicitly designed for use in large lecture classes that are not configured for group work. In order to establish a program that would institutionalize scientific teaching, the team predicted that they would need to provide a set of tools and create an environment in which faculty would receive (1) professional development, (2) support for trying new methods, (3) tools to assess faculty success, (4) incentives to try new approaches, (5) and the freedom to take risks (which may require changes to retention, tenure, and promotion criteria).

Determine Readiness for Action

There is ample evidence that the adoption of innovations is a sociocultural phenomenon. In his influential 2003 book Diffusion of Innovations, Everette Rogers describes five phases of adoption: knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation. He further describes five conditions that influence the rate and prevalence of adoption, including the advantage an innovation provides, the compatibility of an innovation with existing circumstances and values, the complexity of adoption, whether the innovation can be tried in limited doses, and when the use of the innovation is visible. A key element in the adoption of innovations is increasing awareness. In order to raise the visibility of scientific teaching, the CSUF team decided to host a seminar series featuring off-campus experts who could make the case for discipline-based education research and instruction.

Choose Strategies

Based on analysis of faculty survey responses and the CSUF team’s review of the research literature and the work of others, the team developed a multiphase strategy to address its goals. Once the team had identified program elements, it became clear that the team could not accomplish most of its objectives with existing resources. Therefore, the team identified opportunities to secure external funding to support the implementation of a program that would address the challenges outlined in the previous section and provide time and resources to support faculty pursuing new strategies.

Measure Results

Assessment activities included a repeat administration of the original survey instruments. But the project team further anticipated that professional development activities and the experimental approaches taken by individual faculty would drive the need for better means of assessing student learning. Therefore, the team’s next step was to develop or adapt more robust assessment strategies. An important focus will be micro-assessment embedded in specific courses. For example, a number of junior faculty in the physics department have implemented research-based instructional strategies over the course of several semesters of introductory general education astronomy courses. They have used published assessment instruments specific to the course and student population as well as field notes and journals prepared by instructors and student peer assistants. Their results suggest statistically significant student learning gains on topics of light and spectroscopy; the team has recently submitted a manuscript for a scholarly journal to document the physics faculty’s results and the process of professional development (Li et al. 2014). The project will be characterized by ongoing formative assessment; the project team will be attentive to the activities that are taking place and continually strive to improve. A more summative evaluation, in which the team performs a more complete and quantitative study of the overall effectiveness of the project, will occur at three-year intervals. Features of this evaluation will include administration of the original surveys, comparison of survey results to those from the first project year, and short qualitative interviews with project participants, project staff, and department chairs.

Disseminate Results and Plan Next Steps

Our next steps are to

  • continue the analysis of the survey data;
  • continue small pilot projects to support individual faculty or small teams;
  • perform formative assessment of initial efforts and gather feedback;
  • identify appropriate summative assessment for individual innovations;
  • continue to seek external funding; and
  • publish research results in scholarly journals.



Henderson, Charles. 2008. “Promoting Instructional Change in New Faculty: An Evaluation of the Physics and Astronomy New Faculty Workshop.” American Journal of Physics 76 (2):179–187.

Li, Sissi L., et al. 2014. “A Collaboration to Document and Improve PCK in Astronomy Education.” Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research.

Rogers, Everette M. 2003. Diffusion of Innovations, 5th ed. New York: Free Press.

Tanner, K. 2013. Personal communication.

Trigwell, Keith, and Michael Prosser. 2004. “Development and Use of the Approaches to Teaching Inventory.” Educational Psychology Review 16: 409–424.

Robert A. Koch, special assistant to the provost; and Michael Loverude, associate professor of physics—both of California State University–Fullerton

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