Changes in STEM Instruction May Soon Hit College Campuses

November 05, 2015

Content changes in stem instruction


Scholars Challenge colleges to Reform STEM Learning

In an effort to make STEM (science technology, engineering and math) coursework more meaningful and thus more attractive to students in K-12 public schools, science and math educators have drastically altered curriculum and delivery systems in those schools. The focus is now on larger concepts, practical applications of those concepts, and the scientific method as something that can be used every day. The changes are the result of new standards known as the NGSS, or “Next Generation Science Standards.” The change is having the desired effect, as more high school students, and especially girls, are demonstrating greater interest in pursuing STEM degrees in college. Unfortunately, colleges have not really followed suit.

The Disconnect Between High School and Science Coursework

When these STEM-motivated students reach college, they discover that the required science courses that they take are just like what science classes used to be. The classes are really large, the lectures focus on fact memorization, and the broader concepts and methodologies which turned them on in high school are missing. This discourages students from continuing to pursue more science coursework and, in many cases, choose majors outside of the sciences.

Fixing the Disconnect

A group of professors at Michigan State University aim to change all of this. They have looked at what is being done at the high school level and are now pushing for the same kinds of changes to be made in lower level STEM courses at the college level.  Specifically, although content may become more complex in college, these educators want to use the NGSS principles and apply them. The idea is for university educators to come together and to determine the broad concepts and skills they want students to have, not just for science classes, but for their futures as well, no matter what their majors. One broad concept in biology, for example, might be evolution. Rather than focusing on all of the factual details that students must then memorize and spit out for tests, the idea is to focus on the concept of evolution and the understanding that it is still occurring. The other key element of this “new curriculum” will be the teaching of scientific processes and procedures – those that can carry over to other disciplines and to real life. The changes that are being made have been prepared in a report that was published in Science magazine’s October 16 edition.

These MSU professors are a part of a larger organization, known as the Association of American Universities’ Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative. Eight universities in all have been participating in this course alteration project for the past two years, and, indeed, curricular changes have been made in lots of science and math undergraduate courses. At MSU, for example, all general chemistry courses have now adopted the new content requirements and skill focus. The professors involved will continue to monitor and assess the value of the new programming – will it keep more kids in science fields? Will students themselves find the new curriculum more useful in their other coursework and in their lives?

The ultimate goals of these kind of changes, especially in STEM curricula, is to demonstrate to students that, no matter what they may ultimately major in, the sciences have valuable things to teach them, not just facts.