How Disruption Allows Us to Reimagine Convergent STEM Ecosystems

Author(s):
Dr. Stephanie August
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Stephanie E. August, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor, Engineering Education
California State University, Los Angeles

During this period of disruption in education, new opportunities are emerging to change the future of teaching and learning. Considering the various perspectives of students, faculty, staff, and administration, how can we reimagine higher education to support a diverse workforce that responds to a changing world? 

Disruption arising from the pandemic has increased awareness of our diversity and need for equity. Changes to the way we conduct the business of higher education, interact with knowledge, and take the time to recognize the strengths, talents, and interests of students, faculty, and administrators can pave the path to richer and more inclusive communities. Providing each individual with room to grow and the supports they identify as essential has the potential to generate the strength and energy necessary to address the challenges ahead.

What can our future be if we build now toward a diverse and equitable environment? What will our future be if we do not act?

There are several initiatives we as individuals can take that will set the stage for the academic community to respond to our changing world.

Embrace the Convergence of Knowledge

Our path forward involves systematic integration of three key aspects of knowledge to ensure that higher education remains responsive and capable of cultivating the diverse workforce needed to successfully and intentionally anticipate and respond to the challenges facing our future world. 1,2

A ring linked by three sections. The sections are described as Foundation Knowledge, Meta Knowledge, and Humanistic Knowledge.

Figure 1: This graphic identifies some of the environmental components needed to develop and sustain an effective and diverse future workforce. It synthesizes 15 different 21st century learning frameworks into one visual image.1

Foundational knowledge, the core content knowledge of STEM disciplines, needs to be presented and acquired from a real-world, hands-on perspective, rather than from a theoretical, context-independent one. Meta knowledge contributes the skills, mindsets, and attitudes that enable the learners to acquire the models needed to effectively apply foundational knowledge. Humanistic knowledge provides a moral and social compass, guiding us toward decisions aligned with human-centered values. Figure 1 portrays 21st century learning as a convergence of these three forces. For many of us, this change means stepping out of our comfort zone, and feels like welcoming strangers into our home. Yet this is a charge we hear frequently from our students and industry.

Forge a Plan

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.” – Gloria Steinem

Once we accept the need for change, it is essential to lay out a plan and negotiate a path forward. The common model for higher education is to produce majors that have followed a specific, prescribed regimen.

In its place, imagine STEM higher education as a system that nurtures an equitable, diverse, and inclusive workforce nimble enough to apply foundational knowledge in multiple disciplines, think ethically, and understand the impact of the decisions they make.

This system would adjust to individuals developing at different paces, based upon individual circumstances, goals, and background, much like the growth of plants in a forest depends upon the resources available to them, such as sunlight, minerals, and water. For our students, these might be educational experiences, support, and financial resources. This model, often referred to as an educational ecosystem as shown in figure 23 places experiences and growth of members, rather than content delivery, at the center of activity. It assumes that all students, faculty, staff, and administrators in the system have the potential to thrive and succeed.

An ecosystem model showing how twelve traits are related to supporting faculty and students, creating a positive academic culture around STEM education, and improving teaching and learning. These twelve traits are: Supportive, Inclusive, Diverse, Healthy, Reflective, Mindful, Action-Research, Engaged, Respectful, Thriving, and Fulfilled.

Figure 2: Ecosystem model for STEM education (Eco-STEM).3

Developing and implementing the model is a daunting task, until we begin to break it down into easily understood components. Developing a manifesto declaring the change you want to see is one way to get started.4 Begin by writing down and drawing scenarios presenting the perspectives of students, faculty, classroom experiences, assessments, and administrators set in our re-imagined environment. As we think through these vignettes of everyday life, we begin to identify the changes to institutional and public policy and the re-configuring of our communities’ learning experiences that will be required to move forward. Higher education will not magically reconfigure itself following this exercise. Rather, it will tell a story that we can use to persuade others of the need for change. As we identify the contributions that individuals in every aspect of higher education can make, such as being mindful of inclusivity, encouraging reflection, and engaging without fear of failure, mechanisms for nourishing the minds and souls of individuals will come into view. For example, teaching portfolios and formative teaching evaluations that focus on strategies for becoming more confident and engaging thought leaders (that is what instructors are – leading their students to think about their discipline) and the performance of students in subsequent courses can replace those measures that base evaluation on the students’ favorability rating of faculty.

Students and faculty can be introduced to the scaffolding and preparation required for flipped learning experiences in the guise of an entertaining activity. Thus, students can come to understand the merits of fully participating in flipped experiences, and faculty can learn the ropes of flipping in a non-judgmental environment. Administrators and policy makers can begin to see that officially tracking and recognizing student talents and skills beyond disciplinary concepts can lead to a stronger alignment between interests and skills of all students and their employment, contributing to a more effective and diverse workforce.

Innovate in Learning Environments

As educators, we are changing the way we formulate course content and foster a nurturing environment. Our current disruption provides a nudge to step away from the total control of traditional delivery to a milieu in which an instructor’s presence can be felt, even when the instructor is not personally present. Advances in technology and growing access to cloud resources present opportunities to make learning experiences adaptable to the diversity of individuals’ abilities, assets, interests, and schedules. The capabilities of innovative learning environments span adaptive and personalized learning, automated feedback and guidance for students, dashboards that present real-time feedback on student performance and engagement, intelligent tutoring systems, and extended reality experiences.5 These form a metaphorical exoskeleton that extends an instructor’s ability to support student learning. Interactive digital aids for learning can personalize the learning experience, off load some instructor tasks to software, and give the instructor more time to interact directly with students,6 either remotely or in person. Emerging tools and environments facilitate implementation of the ecosystem model of learning by supporting just-in-time access to knowledge that satisfies the needs of individuals in the ecosystem, enabling students to fill individual knowledge gaps in a just-in-time fashion and achieve parity in educational outcomes. Bias and lack of cultural sensitivity can creep into all systems. Understanding the characteristics of inclusive environments can mitigate this and guide more intentional design of learning and feedback components, resulting in more equitable experiences.

Recognize a Broader Array of the Assets of Allies in Learning

A healthy ecosystem embraces diversity and values the contributions of each individual allied in the common pursuit of excellence and progress. Building a more just, inclusive, and equitable academic system calls us to assess an individual’s performance based on their overall demonstrated contribution to a community. A student who performs poorly on exams might excel at oral explanations or demonstrate extraordinary creativity and perseverance in problem solving. A teammate who codes slowly on a software project might provide the leadership skills that keeps the team on task and within budget. The pursuit of equity demands change7. Our academic system has the capacity to track, recognize, and reward the breadth of talents displayed by its allies. One example is the development of student asset-focused recognitions or micro-credentials to address local needs, reinforce the values of the institution, and align a degree with meta, humanistic, and foundational knowledge. A student’s work ethic and experience, organizational skills, team leadership, engagement in professional or civic duties, or exemplary demonstration of the values of the institution, college, or department can be documented by a certificate signed by chair and dean that the student can include in their portfolio and present to employers. A micro-credential can recognize training and demonstrated skill in a designated space, such as peer tutoring, low-bandwidth teaching, or classroom observation and feedback.

Live the Future You Want to Enjoy

Small changes by individuals that impact their local environments can contribute to creation of a community that shifts toward a vibrant academic ecosystem.

Embrace convergence.

Engage in conversations across campus and across disciplines about possible synergies, e.g., a graphic arts+English+computer science course where students collaborate to construct an artifact that requires all three disciplines.

Plan.

Initiate conversations with colleagues early and often, including students, faculty, chairs, deans, provosts and presidents, about what the future will look like 20 – 30 years out, and ask how we will prepare for it. What happens when the kindergartners that are learning programming become our undergrads in another 13 years? What will courses look like if students practice computational thinking when they enter the university?

Innovate.

Experiment with alternate teaching methods, e.g., case studies, on a small scale, and report on your results at regional professional conferences.

Recognize all of the talents of those around us.

Give students the option of tailoring projects and assignments to their own interests. Start a practice of writing commendation letters for colleagues or students’ portfolios acknowledging their meta skills. A natural evolution will follow creating a framework for achieving the more challenging and progressively larger adjustments that will ultimately lead to a sustainable academic environment that can thrive and produce the change agents of the future.


Further Reading…

STEM Futures

The Future Substance of STEM Education (STEM Futures) project8 held a virtual design-studio workshop in fall 2020 (STEM Futures: The Future Substance of STEM Education Project, 2020) that challenged participants to re-imagine STEM a higher education system that fosters an equitable, diverse, and inclusive workforce nimble enough to apply foundational knowledge in multiple disciplines, think ethically, and understand the impact of the decisions they make.  Throughout the week, teams developed artifacts that exemplified 21st century learning, receiving daily feedback from peers and mentors. Our team (Stephanie August, California State University-Los Angeles, Gustavo Borel Menezes, California State University-Los Angeles, Bettyjo Bouchey, National Louis University, Melissa Ko, Stanford University, and Alan Cheville, Bucknell University) produced a STEM Reimagined Manifesto4 with five goals:

  1. To reimagine the STEM experience to enable all stakeholders to achieve their full potential,
  2. Shift from an industrial production model of education to one based on a more complete ecosystem,
  3. Align reward mechanisms with the values of the ecosystem model,
  4. Empower all participants to make changes toward a healthy ecosystem environment, and;
  5. Guide assessment using ecosystem health indicators rather than traditional metrics.4

Recognitions and Micro-Credentials

The notion of officially tracking and acknowledging student achievement beyond the traditional units and grades was promoted during the STEM 2026 Workshop on Assessment, Evaluation, and Accreditation held in 2019.9,10 Recognitions would be opportunities for all students to gain prestige for skills acquired over the course of their academic studies or promote social mobility for workers11 and rural learners12.  This can be particularly valuable to those who do not receive top marks yet clearly excel in skills desired by employers. For example, in Computer Science a first-year micro-credential might consist of completing Computer Science 1 and 2, training to be a tutor, and completing 30 hours of volunteer or paid tutoring. A second-year micro-credential might reflect completion of an algorithms course, Calculus I, Computer Systems Organization, and an elective course, along with 30 hours of volunteer or formal tutoring. Similar recognitions could be developed for faculty that support peers or junior faculty through peer observation and constructive feedback to guide colleagues eager to implement flipped learning yet at a loss as to how to go about it.


Acknowledgements

Bettyjo Bouchey (National Louis University) worked with Stephanie E. August (California State University-Los Angeles), Gustavo Borel Menezes (California State University-Los Angeles), Melissa Ko (Stanford University), and Alan Cheville (Bucknell University) on formulating the idea of the STEM Reimagined Manifesto developed at the STEM Futures workshop.13

The author expresses gratitude to the Cal State LA Eco-STEM project steering committee, Ariel Anbar and Punya Mishra (Arizona State University), her husband, Phillip P. Schmidt, and Jennifer Carinci and Thomas Veague (AAAS) for valuable feedback on drafts of this blog.

References

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