Peer Review

STIRS and the LEAP Challenge

The Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills (STIRS) project was developed as part of the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, a national intellectual framework for liberal education principles, practices, and outcomes. STIRS specifically addresses the following LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes: inquiry and analysis, ethical reasoning, and integrative and applied learning. The project aims to help reinvigorate science and social science educational components for all students, not just those preparing for health professions. STIRS’s ultimate goal is to help students in all fields of study—in general education and in their majors—to understand and use evidence-based reasoning to solve problems and make judgments about important public issues.

n the first phase of STIRS, thirteen scholars from a variety of disciplines were invited to craft real-world, peer-reviewed case studies through which students could apply their understanding of scientific reasoning, study design, cross-disciplinary learning, and evidence-based problem solving within a course.  The case studies (available since 2014 without cost from AAC&U at, along with their accompanying facilitator guides) are examples of how essential knowledge and skills can be connected and applied across disciplines and across general education and the majors—a key goal of LEAP.

At its 2012 launch, we envisioned that the STIRS project would last for only two years. However, interest in the project framework has caused it to exceed those expectations. In phase two of the project, four campuses are now piloting ways to scale up the evidence-based reasoning framework beyond the single course level. These pilots are using the STIRS framework as a foundation for thematic, scaffolded, four-year curricula capped by longer-term student projects. Expanding STIRS from a single class framework to a four-year program builds on the goals of General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) and the LEAP Challenge, both initiatives that AAC&U developed while the initial STIRS work was under way.

The GEMs initiative emphasizes the importance of relevant, coherent, and integrative designs for general education that result in meaningful pathways to student achievement of learning outcomes and their own goals. The design principles that emerged from GEMs—proficiency, agency, self-direction, integrative learning, problem-based inquiry, equity, transparency, and assessment—are intended to inform a comprehensive reform of undergraduate education, beginning with general education but not ending there.

The LEAP Challenge, the next generation of LEAP, champions integrative and applied learning by focusing on students’ production of “signature work.” We define signature work as a project, requiring at least a semester to complete, in which a student synthesizes and applies learning by addressing a significant, complex, unscripted problem of societal and personal importance. Throughout the process of creating signature work, the student, guided and mentored by faculty members, takes the lead in framing and exploring a question and communicating the results of the inquiry.

Though there are a number of ways in which institutions can apply the GEMs principles and fulfill the LEAP Challenge, the case study assignments and broader programmatic designs emerging from the STIRS initiative serve as valuable examples of signature work and the intentional, coherent pathways needed to prepare all students to accomplish it.

It is our hope that in addition to inspiring assignment models and curricular design strategies, readers will take from this issue of Peer Review a sense of the importance of evidence-based reasoning for graduates in all fields, accomplished in part by connecting STEM skills across the curriculum. 

Kathy Wolfe, professor of English, Nebraska Wesleyan, and senior fellow, AAC&U

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