Liberal Education

The Theory and Practice of Transforming Undergraduate STEM Education: Reflections from the PKAL Experience

About the PKAL Series

Intended to challenge the higher education community to think strategically about how best to advance the learning and success of all students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), this series of articles presents a broad array of perspectives on cutting-edge issues affecting contemporary undergraduate education in the STEM fields.

The initial support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the group that became Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) was one of a cluster of grants the foundation made in the late 1980s to lay the groundwork for reforming the nation's undergraduate science and mathematics sector. What inspired the NSF to initiate and support these groups was a recommendation from the 1986 report of the National Science Board, Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education (the "Neal report"). This seminal report emerged in the context of growing despair of the quality of collegiate learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. It reflected an awareness of both the responsibilities and the opportunities for addressing a pressing national need through explicit attention to strengthening undergraduate STEM learning.

Perhaps most important, the Neal report revealed the need for a coherent plan to build an infrastructure that would enable the NSF to help shape undergraduate programs. The authors of the report recommended that the NSF gain a "sense of the community" through the effort to flesh out such a plan. Thus, the context for the work of Project Kaleidoscope was the nascent recognition that the nation's leadership role in STEM was being severely compromised by deficiencies in the educational system; that the undergraduate sector is the critical link in our educational continuum—a link that was then (and is still) not as strong as it should be in the service of the nation; and that there was no mutually agreed-upon plan of action for those who wished to join in the national effort to strengthen undergraduate STEM education.

In a meeting with the early PKAL leadership, Bassam Shakashiri, then assistant director for education and human resources at the NSF, expressed the challenge most pointedly, "Don't point the finger, point the way." This sentiment was also expressed during a 1989 House hearing by Representative Robert A. Roe of New Jersey, who said, "I am tired of hearing about studies and analyses of the current problems this nation faces in science and technology. We know what works. Let's stop studying the problem; let's move from analyses to action" (Project Kaleidoscope 1991, ix). We welcomed the opportunity to respond to this challenge. Focusing on the future, on what works, and on moving from analysis to action became PKAL's modus operandi as we undertook our commission.

Indeed, there was little need to redefine the problems. Several decades of reports had analyzed and reanalyzed them, in most cases making the case for solving them in similarly compelling language. We were well aware of these past reports, including one from a 1962 conference at Oakland University convened by the NSF with the purpose of "coming to grips with the problem of making it possible for undergraduates who are not intent on becoming professional scientists to become familiar with, unafraid of, and literally conversant with the scientific enterprise." In the context of these reflections on the work of PKAL, it is important to note that conferees urged the NSF "to establish a continuing conference on science instruction for non-science students. As a widely scattered group of people concerned for orientation science courses, we feel the need of some informal organization . . . to help exchange ideas and problems, to help set standards . . . so that all students do something more than listen to lectures, look at demonstrations, study a text book, and recite a lesson. . . . They must watch a crystal grow. They must see a beating heart" (Hoopes 1963). Why was no action taken on this recommendation?

Context matters. In the mid-1960s, attention at the NSF to undergraduate science and mathematics was shaped by Sputnik-sparked reforms designed to move the best and brightest undergraduates with all deliberate speed into and through graduate school, and then into research positions in industry or academe. Science for all was not recognized as an urgent public issue. These conferees, however, had hit on two key factors in achieving meaningful change: mobilizing an informed community to take collective action, and providing support for their efforts over the long term.

These two reports—from 1986 and 1962—were among those that set the stage for the work of PKAL. But the most helpful in grounding our work was the 1989 Sigma Xi report, one of the NSF's post-Neal efforts to gain a sense of the community. The report zeroed in on the character and quality of introductory courses as the key point for gaining traction in efforts to change STEM education at the undergraduate level. Of more immediate value for us was the fact that the report did not address the reform of individual STEM introductory courses in isolation from reform of the institutional culture, the environment for learning.

The Sigma Xi report recognized—as did the Oakland conferees, though in a different way—the power of a collective action taken by a community, the power of a shared vision at both the institutional and the national levels: "In searching for the roots of the crisis in undergraduate education, members . . . hit repeatedly upon the theme of accessibility for students: access to instruction that generates enthusiasm and fosters long-term learning; access to a curriculum that is relevant and flexible; access to a human environment that is intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive; and access to a physical environment that supports the other three dimensions. These crucial components are strongly interrelated; weakness in any one diminishes the quality of undergraduate education" (1989, 4–5). Attention to what works became the driver not only for our immediate action agenda but, ultimately, for the long-term work of PKAL as well. Early on, we recognized the power of getting the planning process right and getting the right group of people to the planning table. We were a very diverse, sometimes very opinionated, cadre of experienced agents of change. Each of us continually challenged and refined our colleagues' statements until we agreed on a collective vision of what works.

The emergence of the PKAL vision

Anyone familiar with PKAL as it has evolved will readily see how the early reports mentioned above have influenced our work. We knew that the criticisms of collegiate learning, from within and beyond academe, were on target and that few undergraduates had easy access to what we knew worked in terms of instruction, curricular programs, and human and physical learning environments. We knew firsthand of many instances of failure. We also knew of many instances of success—in tackling the problem of the introductory course, for example, and the lack of an integrated institutional effort to ensure accessibility for all. Moreover, we knew many who were pointing the way forward—some of whom were already at the PKAL table.

Our founding group represented liberal arts institutions, which at the time were noted for their successful attention to undergraduate STEM learners. In 1991, midway through our initial eighteen-month grant period, we spent an entire weekend arguing, negotiating, celebrating, and dissolving differences of perspectives and passions. The result was the original PKAL vision of what works, which represented the distillation of our collective experience (see fig. 1).

Figure 1.
The PKAL vision statement (1991)

The most important attribute of undergraduate programs that attract and sustain student interest in science and mathematics is a thriving community of students and faculty. Such natural science communities offer students a learning environment that is demonstrably effective, where

  • learning is experiential, investigative, hands-on, and steeped in investigation from the very first courses for all students through capstone courses for majors;
  • learning is personally meaningful to students and faculty, makes connections to other fields of inquiry, is embedded in the context of its own history and rationale, and suggests practical applications related to the experience of students;
  • learning takes place in a community where faculty are committed equally to undergraduate teaching and to their own intellectual vitality, where faculty see students as partners in learning, where students collaborate with one another and gain confidence that they can succeed, and where institutions support such communities of learners.

Programs organized around these guiding principles motivate students and give them the skills and confidence to succeed. Thus empowered, students learn science and mathematics.

We then began sharing and vetting ideas, identifying and defining problems that dealt with real-world issues and that mattered to us personally as STEM educators. We also began shaping persuasive language and designing forums for further sharing, vetting, adapting—all directed toward the development of broader communities of practice. The glue that held this volunteer group together was the shared recognition that the problem put forth by the NSF and in the Neal report was a problem that mattered to us all in our day-to-day work. It was not an abstract problem to be rearticulated in yet another report.

Building from the Sigma Xi vision of an institution-wide approach, we adopted the kaleidoscopic metaphor of change to signal that, although the patterns of reform will differ from campus to campus, there must be community-wide attention to how all the pieces fit together. In the early months of working together, we returned again and again to distilling a vision from our common experiences and individual expertise. In hindsight, it's clear that we were beginning to discover how learning communities of STEM change agents emerge and evolve through the practices that became the story line through two decades of PKAL reports, workshops, and other activities: assemble a team representing the diverse top-down and bottom-up constituencies that can imagine and realize meaningful change—including those already recognized as outliers; take the time to argue through to a common vision, learning from and adapting the work of others; move intentionally from analysis to action; and keep seeking "lessons learned" that can advance further action.

One strength of the PKAL vision of what works is that it was a collective vision. Another is that it focused on the community of learners. This vision, which reflected the sense of the community assembled to respond to Shakashiri's 1989 charge ("don't point the finger, point the way") became the skeleton of the 1991 report submitted to the NSF and presented to a broader community of stakeholders gathered at the National Academy of Sciences—the first national PKAL colloquium and, perhaps, the first formal gathering of a national STEM learning community. The serviceability of the vision for driving meaningful change was reinforced again and again in subsequent workshops, seminars, and other meetings convened by PKAL and a host of collaborating partners.

Leadership development

The early PKAL leaders clearly recognized the cyclical nature of change: new initiatives start, have an impact, and then, after the pioneers turn to something new, the innovations often fade away, only to be reinvented by following generations. We also recognized the value of the ideas about STEM learning that were beginning to percolate out from the growing community of change agents. It seemed important to build an infrastructure—intellectual and social—through which these ideas could be captured, shared, vetted, and adapted. Thus, with initial funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation, PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century (F21) was established as a practitioner network to help ensure that the best ideas, promising practices, and lessons learned were never lost, but would instead continue to influence the work of leaders over the long term.

Senior campus administrators nominated early-career faculty for the F21 community who demonstrated promise for leadership at the local level, within the broader communities to which their college or university were connected, or within their communities of practice. This meant that there were campus-level expectations of what F21 members were to become and be able to do. F21 was not merely another isolated professional experience that would have no ripple effect among colleagues on their home campuses or beyond.

In the F21 context, we identified mentors as "village elders," respecting anthropologists' insights into how communities are sustained over the long term through the intentionality of village elders who pass their wisdom about the nature and culture of the community to coming generations of leaders. This put an important "spin" on the concept of mentoring, emphasizing the importance of nurturing leaders. The charge to our village elders was, in some ways, the standard charge to mentors: listen, counsel, and push people to think about the future. At the edges of this mentoring were issues of immediate import to early career faculty: setting up a lab, advising students, working with yet unknown departmental colleagues.

But at the heart of the mentoring work of the F21 village elders was modeling the variety of ways one can make a difference, which was central to our definition of leadership. So it became a community of experienced and early-career faculty addressing both the theory and the practice of leadership. Together, we explored questions such as how you know yourself, how to connect learning about leadership skills with the actual practice of those skills, and what to do when you fail. In juxtaposing theoretical and practical discussions about leadership in this mentoring process, we sought to develop a learning environment for early-career STEM faculty that was based on best practices in developing such environments for their STEM students. That is, we recognized that learning is deeper and more readily transferable when it is relevant or connected in some meaningful way to the real world of the learner.

In addition to F21 assemblies and web-based resources, with NSF support PKAL sponsored a series of five-day summer leadership institutes ("boot camps") in which village elders and mentees went through a rigorous schedule dealing with three kinds of leadership issues: big-picture (the societal, academic, and scientific context for the work of twenty-first-century STEM leaders; political (the politics of leadership—top down, grassroots); and personal (the value of self-reflection, openness to risk taking and failure).

Our initial cadre of village elders was comprised of faculty who were nationally recognized for their impact on undergraduate STEM education and who were ready and willing to give back. The typical response to our invitation was, "Of course, I want to do this," because of people they had met along the way who had made a difference in their lives—their own personal village elders. By 1995, the second year of the F21 assemblies, F21 individuals began mentoring each other across disciplinary lines. They were relishing the opportunity—for many the first opportunity—to share ideas and ask questions that took them out of existing disciplinary silos and into the future. Emphasizing the importance of self-reflection for meaningful leadership, we periodically invited F21 members to share their reflections on the future. Collectively, these reflections shaped future PKAL activities.

In early 2004, a cadre of PKAL leaders convened at Bryn Mawr College to explore a more comprehensive and intentional focus on leadership development within the broad portfolio of PKAL initiatives. Those assembled—including a significant number of F21 members—had been invited in anticipation of a new submission to the NSF. We examined lessons learned from the experiences of those around the table, as well as from leaders and participants in ongoing PKAL activities. The convening was rooted in the fundamental recognition that making all voices heard was key to arriving at a shared vision for the work of PKAL, as it is key for arriving at a shared vision of the future at the institutional level. The series of workshops subsequently funded by the NSF focused on the four key needs identified by the planning group: to respond to an increasingly interdisciplinary world, to nurture science-savvy citizens, to shape technology-rich learning environments, and to equip the next generation of STEM professionals.

Lessons learned

In conclusion, following are some final lessons learned from PKAL's work about building community.

The power of questions. With a reputation for asking probing questions, leaders can set expectations for the work of the community—within the grassroots and from the top down. One of the skills that are often overlooked at the beginning of a reform effort is the ability to ask questions that are probing and meaningful, but not threatening or accusatory. A person can lead by the questions he or she asks toward establishing the expectations of others. Questioning can also be a process that leads to the involvement of others, becoming a form of communication that is more shared than a simple set of declarative sentences.

The pace of reform. Step-by-step broadening of the support base for change can be accomplished by involving more and more people in the discussion as the various perspectives on change are determined. Therefore, the pace of that broadening is critical. If it happens too fast, people don't see their perspective as being part of the effort. If it happens too slowly, the momentum is lost. Each organization and set of issues has its proper pace; find it, and change succeeds. Miss the pace and face more problems without any improvements.

Champions and cheerleaders. Champions are necessary to get innovations off the ground. Cheerleaders and champions are not the same. Champions know where the resources are and how to secure and use them; they know where and how to lend support. Cheerleaders can be great motivators, but they may not have access to resources.

Political and personal agendas. When working through the enormously complicated challenges of specific institutional reforms, the political is not personal. Sometimes so-called political stances have deep roots in interests, commitments to existing programs, and principles that are different from one's own. To convert legitimate differences into personal differences erodes civility and collegiality. It is important to look for and acknowledge the specific agendas and concerns that people bring to the table when discussing potential new directions.

Budgets. Strategic planning must be aligned with budgetary planning. Planning to implement a vision requires attention to both vision and budget at the same time.

Leadership. It is important to understand what role you would like to play, and could best play, in the process of change. Becoming a leader does not necessarily mean that one has to be out in front banging the drum. Further, realizing the value of listening gives one the opportunity to step back and understand what is going on before proposing personal solutions to the task at hand.

The nature of change. Change is not sustainable unless and until it is seen as advancing the work and goals of the vast majority of stakeholders. (Doing no harm is not sufficient.) Further, the future benefits of the new initiative must manifestly justify the reallocation of existing and future resources. Basically, the change has to be, or become, what everyone wanted to do anyway, even if they didn't know it at first.

To institutionalize change in a sustainable manner, there needs to be systemic change at many different levels. Change begins at the student-teacher interface, but it has to be nurtured by leadership at the departmental and institutional levels, and then encouraged by larger policy structures. If any of the linked components fails, the sustainability can be rapidly attenuated.

Revitalizing undergraduate STEM education is a complex problem. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. While institutions, both local and national, have a role to play, changes that "stick" are carried out in reality by academic departments, energized by faculty leadership and colleagueship, in a complex interplay that recognizes and understands local missions and local constraints, while keeping an eye on high standards set by the national STEM community.

About Project Kaleidoscope

Since its founding in 1989, Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) has been a leading advocate for building and sustaining strong undergraduate programs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). With an extensive network of over seven thousand faculty members and administrators at over one thousand colleges, universities, and organizations, PKAL has developed far-reaching influence in shaping undergraduate STEM learning environments that attract and retain undergraduate students. PKAL accomplishes its work by engaging campus faculty and leaders in funded projects, national and regional meetings, community-building activities, leadership development programs, and publications that are focused on advancing what works in STEM education.

In 2008, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and PKAL announced a partnership to align and advance the work of both organizations in fostering meaningful twenty-first-century liberal education experiences for all undergraduate students, across all disciplines. This new partnership represents a natural progression, as nearly 75 percent of campuses with PKAL community members are also AAC&U member institutions. Together, AAC&U and PKAL apply their collective expertise in undergraduate learning, assessment, leadership, and institutional change to accelerate the pace and reach of STEM transformation.

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Hoopes, R., ed. 1963. Science in the College Curriculum: A Report of a Conference Sponsored by Oakland University and Supported by a Grant from the National Science Foundation, May 24–26. Rochester, MI: Oakland University.

National Science Board. 1986. Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education; Role for the National Science Foundation and Recommendations for Action by Other Sectors to Strengthen Collegiate Education and Pursue Excellence in the Next Generation of U.S. Leadership in Science and Technology. Washington, DC: National Science Board.

Project Kaleidoscope. 1991. What Works: Building Natural Science Communities, vol. 1. Washington, DC: Project Kaleidoscope.

Sigma Xi. 1989. An Exploration of the Nature and Quality of Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics and Engineering: A Report of the National Advisory Group of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Racine, WI: Sigma Xi.

Jeanne L. Narum is principal of the Learning Spaces Collaboratory and director emerita of Project Kaleidoscope.

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