Saturday, March 1, 2014

Collective Action by STEM Disciplinary Societies

At the end of January, it was my great pleasure to be part of the leadership for a meeting at the MAA Carriage House of representatives of a collection of STEM disciplinary societies [1] and concerned educational associations [2] to consider ways that these societies can coordinate efforts to increase their collective impact on undergraduate education. Across academia, but especially at research universities, most faculty identify first with their discipline and department and only secondarily with their university. Disciplinary societies therefore have the potential to impact how faculty think about their teaching and how willing they are to reach outside their own department in seeking ideas and support for improving undergraduate education.

Many disciplinary societies are actively promoting effective methods for engaging students to improve both what they learn and their desire to persist. The American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers have been particularly effective in this regard. See, for example, the Physics Education Research User’s Guide,, described in my column “Learning from the Physicists,” July, 2012. Over the past several years, the life sciences community, scattered over some 147 disciplinary societies, has come together to produce a joint report, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action [3]. Recognizing that it is not sufficient to issue a report, Vision and Change continues to seek ways to implement the changes it champions. One outgrowth has been PULSE, the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education, which is building communities that share experiences of department-level implementation of the Vision and Change recommendations. Inspired by the example of PULSE, the mathematics community began last summer to build a comparable effort, INGenIOuS, Investing in the Next Generation through Innovative and Outstanding Strategies.

We have much to learn from each other. Beyond just sharing information, an ability to offer comparable statements of vision and comparable programs to promulgate effective practices would increase their collective impact. This would be especially true if the disciplinary societies were to establish and promote linkages that enable individuals to connect with others at their university who are working toward the same ends but within other departments.

With these goals in mind, 28 representatives of disciplinary societies and educational associations met at the MAA Carriage House in Washington, DC on January 30–31 for an NSF-sponsored workshop [4] entitled ISSUES, Integration of Strategies that Support Undergraduate Education in STEM, to look for opportunities to work collectively. As preparation, most of the societies provided a summary of their current activities directed toward faculty development and the improvement of undergraduate education. These Profiles can be found within the ISSUES website at A summary of the workshop is available at

The workshop identified five concrete areas in which disciplinary societies could increase their effectiveness by sharing and coordinating their efforts:
  1. Supporting Early Career Faculty. Within the disciplinary societies, the task is to develop workshops for and build communities of early career faculty, as well as partnering with the Discipline-Based Educational Research community to assess the long-term effectiveness of this work. On individual campuses, the task is to work with deans and chairs to build cross-disciplinary networks of faculty who have been through these experiences, supported by networks of mentors both from the individual’s profession and from within the individual’s home institution.
  2. Strengthening Departments. There is a need to increase the value placed on the department chair and to provide support for the chair by supplying tools for departmental self-assessment of teaching effectiveness together with practical suggestions that chairs and departmental leaders can implement to improve teaching effectiveness.
  3. Communicating Career Pathways. We need to increase the diversity of students within our disciplines by increasing student awareness of the variety of pathways that are available to them, actively recruiting students to these pathways, preparing them for a variety of careers, and introducing them to a network of potential employers.
  4. Shifting Cultural Norms. Disciplinary societies should strive to move their members toward embracing teaching practices that align with what educational research has shown to be most effective and toward a mindset of continual efforts to improve undergraduate teaching and learning. This can be accomplished through policy statements, rubrics for assessing effective educational processes, and active promotion of these practices. Part of our collective goal should be the adoption of consistent language that reinforces this message across disciplinary boundaries.
  5. Measuring the Impact of Our Own Programs for Improving Undergraduate Education. The disciplinary societies can benefit from developing common rubrics for assessing the effectiveness of their own programs and using these to help frame discussion and dialog across the societies.

On point 1, we are already working with the Association of American Universities (AAU) to put together a pilot project on AAU campuses that will build local networks of faculty from multiple disciplines who have each been through an early career professional development program run by their disciplinary society. On point 5, we are beginning the task of gathering information from the disciplinary societies about their experiences with assessment of their own programs. Within the next months, we hope to see progress on all of these agendas.


Footnotes and References:

[1] The disciplinary societies that were represented were the American Association of Physics Teachers, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Institute of Physics, American Mathematical Society, American Physical Society, American Psychological Association, American Society for Engineering Education, American Society for Microbiology, American Statistical Association, Mathematical Association of America, National Association of Biology Teachers, National Association of Geoscience Teachers, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

[2] The educational associations that were represented included the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Association of American Universities, Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Academy of Sciences, National Science Foundation, and Project Kaleidoscope of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

[3] Brewer, C.A., and Smith, D. (eds.). 2011. Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Available at

[4] The workshop was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation, #1344418. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of NSF.