Peer Review

Reflections on the Potential Impacts of Reports on STEM Reform

While reflecting on progress made since the mid-1980s in transforming undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning, one of my reality checks is to ask if and how any of the reports issued since that time have made a difference—and to whom?

One ancestor of these reports is the 1986 “Neal” report, prepared by a National Science Board task force that was charged to analyze current trends in undergraduate education and provide suggestions for action by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the broader community of stakeholders. The report was accepted in the hope it would “…be of interest to and serve as a basis for discussion by those who are actively concerned with the quality of the Nation’s colleges and universities and our country’s long-term economic health,” noting however that although NSF’s responses to the recommendations “…will have to be devised in the context of severe budgetary pressures and large competing demands. Thus, its implementation poses a great challenge to all concerned with the quality of higher education. But, we must all take action or suffer the consequences of an ever diminishing quality in the education of the Nation’s future scientists and engineers.”

The impetus for the Neal report directly relates to its design and thus to its impact. It was timely and contextual. It analyzed what had to be done immediately, why it had to be done, and who should take what responsibility for moving forward—recognizing the complexity of the issues to be addressed. One measure of the impact of this 1986 report are the many new conversations that NSF catalyzed and supported, in an era when there was little attention to the undergraduate STEM link in the educational pipeline. A common language about what works in STEM learning was shaped through these conversations. Particularly within STEM disciplinary and professional communities, a communal sense began to emerge—of a collective vision, of the necessity for action, and of the benefit to be gained by attending to learning rather than teaching.

But national reports and conversations only make a difference when something happens in on a campus, when faculty and their administrative colleagues ‘in the field’ join forces before taking action. As reports continue to multiply, it is easy to lose focus on taking action, without intentional stepping back to consider if and how a particular report is relevant locally. This is where I think many of us who have authored reports over the years have missed an opportunity to make a visible and documentable difference at the level of the learner. Yes, the issues are complex and contextual and what works on one campus must be adapted for use in other settings; thus the translation of generic goals into actionable strategies has to happen in the field. But accountability must be integrated into the process of making reports actionable—perhaps at the level of report design, and certainly through its dissemination.

For example, what difference might it make—to students, faculty, and the larger campus community—if conversations were sparked by the straightforward goals set forth in 1989 by Sigma X that students have easy access to:

  • instruction that generates enthusiasm and fosters long-term learning
  • a curriculum that is relevant, flexible, and within their capabilities
  • a human environment that is intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive
  • a physical environment that supports the other three dimensions.

As the articles in this issue of Peer Review make clear, the reforms PKAL promotes have begun to make headway, but still face formidable obstacles. Maybe it is time for all of us to stop writing reports and start assessing institutional progress in advancing “what works.” The new alliance between PKAL and AAC&U comes at an opportune moment—bringing faculty and leaders together to tackle the hard work that still lies before us. 

Jeanne L. Narum is the director emerita of Project Kaleidoscope.

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