UNC Part of Project to Boost Undergraduate Science, Tech

UNC has been named a project site for the Association of American Universities’ five-year initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields at its member institutions.

Carolina is one of eight campuses to be awarded $500,000 each over the next three years as part of a $4.7 million grant to the AAU from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. The University will commit $1.293 million over the same period from its state-funded instructional support to transform its gateway science courses in biology, chemistry and physics.

The project is intended to bolster an ongoing initiative to enhance undergraduate education through the use of innovative, evidence-based, student-focused instructional techniques and technologies that have been found to be effective for students with wide-ranging academic experience, including those new to the sciences.

“Making learning opportunities more engaging and experiential will prepare our students even more effectively for success in a fast-changing world,” said Karen M. Gil, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The enhancement of STEM courses began about 10 years ago with the redesign of the introductory physics course. The department of physics and astronomy later launched the use of the new SCALE-UP model, which turned a large traditional lecture class into a workshop setting. Students collaborated on solving problems in smaller groups in class with assistance from graduate students and the instructor.

These advances have evolved into what are known as “flipped” classes, where students are expected to master some course content before coming to class by completing guided reading assignments, viewing lectures and presentations on videos, and/or completing online modules and homework. During face-to-face classes, students engage primarily in interactive activities including experiments, simulations, peer instruction and group problem-solving. Personal response systems and technologies are used to gauge student progress and enhance timely communication between students and instructor even in large classes.

Plans include hiring additional science education lecturers and working with the University’s Center for Faculty Excellence to redesign traditional lecture courses and train a network of junior and senior faculty to teach the re-engineered courses.

The long-term goal is to develop a learning community of faculty experienced in using these instructional practices. The AAU project will support the expansion of UNC’s network of such faculty in the STEM disciplines to about three dozen — 12 in each of the three departments — that will be implemented over the next seven years. This would allow faculty to take turns teaching a suite of redesigned introductory courses, while also fostering the use of innovative methods in upper level courses.

The eight AAU project sites were chosen from among 31 member universities that submitted concept papers, based on criteria such as the degree of department and faculty engagement, institutional commitment, likelihood of sustained organizational change and commitment to evaluation and assessment. The other sites are Brown, Michigan State and Washington universities and the universities of Arizona, Pennsylvania, Colorado-Boulder and California-Davis.