Power of Partnerships

Headshot of Susan Singer
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Susan Singer, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost
Rollins College

Caption: Creative partnership can emerge through design thinking for innoviation. (Image Credit: Scott Cook)

The gap between knowing how to effectively advance student learning and the lack of widespread implementation is stunning. Research-informed approaches that include and extend beyond the cognitive domain and cultivate a sense of belonging, motivation, and persistence continue to emerge and be adopted or adapted. There’s progress but the spread of change is exceeded by the need, exacerbated by the dual pandemics of the last two years – COVID and reckoning with systemic racial injustice with a level of commitment last seen during the Civil Rights Movement. Through partnerships, we can exponentially increase efforts to “Catalyze Sustainable Evidence-Based Strategies to Create an Equitable Future for STEM Education.”

Partnerships can help us address growing inequities in STEM education and offer strategies to optimize progress toward better STEM learning for all.

The Why of Partnering

Within a decade, we landed on the moon and sequenced the human genome. Why, in the decade since the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine published the first synthetic analysis of what we know about learning and teaching in undergraduate science and engineering,1 and the first Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan2 emerged, have we not changed the way all undergraduates learn in the STEM fields? Can we advance faster in the next decade? Partnerships within and among our institutions can help.

The Moon Shot and the Human Genome Project reflect powerful collaborations emphasizing a clear outcome and assembling broad-based expertise to address a clarion call. COVID laid bare fundamental misunderstandings of science; while, simultaneously, science saved us with breathtaking vaccines. It’s a moment to leapfrog over barriers to create truly inclusive learning environments.3

Last semester I team taught with a philosopher who serves as our college president. Our passion for mentored research led us to teach a research-based, capstone general education course, focused on global sustainable development. We joined Friday afternoon professional development sessions. Shifting roles allowed us to engage with colleagues as fellow faculty and gain a deeper sense of the holistic challenges our students encounter.

To vertically integrate efforts, sometimes you need to step away from hierarchy and fully immerse yourself in the work.

The department is in the middle between individual faculty and senior leaders. When departments consider curriculum as a whole and align progressive learning goals, students are more successful. Efforts to work across science departments and beyond extend that impact. At my institution, science colleagues are focusing on common laboratory equipment that will be used across disciplines to nurture confidence and remove technical barriers to the deeper thinking about experimental design, data analysis, and interpretation. That move requires broader engagement at the department, division, school level, and beyond. We arrived here through a series of small, faculty-driven steps with support from leadership. We found funds for our chemists to implement a supplemental instruction model they proposed. Faculty became interested in the role cognitive tutors like ALEKS (Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces) could offer to make math less of a barrier. I joined a group of physicists and chemists for a week-long science pedagogy workshop in California, developed by Carl Wieman and colleagues. We supported social science colleagues who conducted focus groups with students of color who were leaving the sciences. All of this rolled up into a successful Howard Hughes Medical Institute proposal with internal support through our Proposal Initiation and Research Incentive program. More faculty joined the conversations that shifted to emphasize belonging, along with recognizing that technology can be a barrier. A STEM Hub at the entrance to our science center was created to welcome and support students through tutoring, faculty mentoring, and simply gathering. Common laboratory equipment is a lever for new conversations about connection, learning outcomes, and sequencing learning. It all keeps building at a pace that aligns with faculty expertise and commitment, student need, and modest investments from senior leadership. At the core is a willingness to develop a shared vision and continuously learn from each other.

A systems approach to changemaking is far more likely to lead to sustaining great programs. So how do you get there as someone with a great idea and a passion to support your students’ success?

A chart detailing the process of partnering for better STEM Education for all. It starts with a great idea, then goes from "me" to "we", then to "we" and institutional leaders, then "we and other institution to build or join a network", then to sustainable evidence-based strategies that create equity in education. During the process ask how will we make decisions, what will success look like? what problem are we trying to solve? and what resources are at our disposal?

Figure 1: A strategy for partnering.

The How of Partnering

Frameworks for partnering

Across higher education, public administration, organizational behavior, and other domains, bodies of literature on changemaking offer a range of frameworks that center authentic partnerships, build on an implicit or explicit theory of change, and identify levers for change. Ashoka U has a guidebook focused on social innovation that prioritizes values; culture; hierarchies and disciplines; and curriculum and co-curriculum as levers and lays out a 15-step roadmap.4 It’s readily transferable to STEM improvement initiatives.

The American Association of Universities’ (AAU) analytic framework guides improvement of STEM undergraduate education, centering pedagogical practice by scaffolding professional development in the broader context of cultural change.5 The AAU Framework guided a 5-year implementation project for 55 member institutions assessed in a research-informed status report.6  Sustainable changes ranging from policy modification to data analytics informed approaches to collective responsibility for introductory courses and were among the successes driven by the AAU Framework.

Matz and Jardeleza (2016) assessed the application of two additional frameworks for partnering and concluded that enacting policy and creating a shared vision were key in large scale STEM education change initiatives and that neither top-down or bottom-up approaches alone would suffice. In other words, partnerships are essential.

An aerial view looking over four teachers having a discussion around a table.

Ideating together. (Image Credit: Scott Cook)

Individual as innovator

You have a wonderful plan to redesign a course or change course evaluations. Digging into the research, you build on what is known, avoid pitfalls, and possibly identify some existing resources. A conversation with the department chair, campus faculty development director or learning and teaching center staff may ensue. Are there departmental or institutional policies that would need to change? For example, a shift to evaluating courses through multiple lenses might require changing tenure and promotion policy to be maximally effective. What would it take to amend a policy? What will it take to fund the work? Possibly you reach out to a National Science Foundation program officer to explore funding. These are all important steps. What if you stepped back a bit further and contemplated the broader institutional context?

Why take a more meta level approach? If you are going to invest heart and soul into your project, you want to ensure it has lasting influence on future students and on your institution’s overall success. If your idea proves effective, you’ll want your institution to promote the innovation, including providing financial support after the funding period for the most essential elements.

Align with institutional priorities

First, step way back and consider both your university’s mission and strategic plan. At a large institution, begin with the mission and strategic plan for your school or college. Why does this matter? Aligning your innovation with your institution’s strategic priorities makes it easier to support in an era of tight resources.

Great ideas that don’t match priorities or mission are less likely to be prioritized when difficult decisions are being made. How is your work going to help your institution deliver on its mission or contribute to a strategic priority?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a strategic priority at my institution and multiple division-wide initiatives in the sciences are laser focused on redesigns to engage, retain, and support the success of students traditionally underrepresented in science. That alignment makes it easier to obtain support from our grants office, institutional analytics team, and other internal resources. Building a compelling case for all faculty approval of curricular change becomes more streamlined.

A man gestures with his hand to a female and male colleague.

Thinking broadly. Business school partners can help. (Image credit: Scott Cook)

Identify partners and process

As you think at the institutional level, new partnership opportunities emerge. Your department chair can help you navigate partnerships within and beyond your department, noting that our departments are key in sustainable change. In very large universities, most of your partnering efforts may be anchored in this context. It is still worth considering who else might help. Early on, establish a decision-making process with your partners. Think about this as governance at a small scale.

The most successful and sustainable projects are team efforts with shared decision making – charismatic leaders may effectively launch efforts, while collaborative teams are most effective in sustaining the work.

Align your outcomes with key institutional outcomes

Are your outcomes contributing to institution-wide outcomes used for regional accreditation or marketing? Perhaps a conversation with the institutional effectiveness lead could lead to a new ally. As a bit of an aside, institutional structures for managing internal data vary widely. They all contain elements of institutional research (think about federal data reporting) and institutional effectiveness (institutional outcomes and accreditation). In addition, institutional analytics is using new approaches to analyze and make sense of the vast data we have about our institutions.

If you are focused on persistence and retention in STEM courses, you may want to explore what is happening in overall retention and graduation rate strategies at your institution. For example, as Provost, I co-lead our campus-wide retention strategy with our Vice President for Student Affairs and our Vice President for Enrollment. We coordinate a cross-functional team that extends beyond our divisions, including Finance. Might there be mutually beneficial collaborative opportunities between your work and the retention team’s efforts? Might they have insights about questions, data, and goals?

Institutional leaders as partners

While there are many potential partners, I want to explicitly address deans and provosts. Senior leaders are deeply committed to the success of our students and our faculty. That’s what gets us up every morning. Most of us come from the faculty and are motivated by the academic mission. Our work gives us a broader view of the work of the university and extends across multiple domains. We’re good thought partners on how to situate work in the broader priorities of the institution. We tend to be innovators who also respect traditions and the distinctive attributes of our institution. We are cheerleaders for the faculty and want to be sure our marketing and communications office is celebrating and sharing your efforts.

For large, institution-wide grant opportunities, the dean or provost may need to decide which project goes forward if there are multiple good ideas. This is where aligning with mission and strategic priorities can help your idea rise to the top. Genuine partnerships within and across departments can make your work stand out. Sustainability in the post-award phase of your innovative work will benefit from early and ongoing conversations with chairs, deans, and provosts. What is the 20% of the work that is getting you 80% of the way to success and is essential going forward? What are creative ways to make that possible? Think about sustainability from the start.

Think beyond your institution

Thinking even more broadly, partnerships beyond a single university can scale improvement of undergraduate STEM education. We have three decades of evidence from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program that academic and industry partnerships advance learning, provide excellent career preparation, and can support the sustainability of a program well beyond the period of external funding.7 The Center for Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (https://www.cirtl.net) brings multiple research-intensive universities together to prepare the future professoriate.  My colleague, Ann Austin and I have been studying six of these networks of organizations focused on improving undergraduate STEM Education (Organizational Change Networks, OCNs).8 Unlike networks of individuals – think about your professional research societies – the additional lever OCNs have is university-level commitment. Perhaps your institution already belongs to an OCN that could amplify your work. Perhaps you and colleagues at other institutions might want to collaborate to ensure your improvements spread and stick.

Partnerships are a powerful lever to move innovative, meaningful STEM learning from some classrooms to most classrooms, within and across departments, and across institutions. Reach out to one new potential partner. Think about how collaboration could accelerate changing the landscape of higher education. Let’s not wait another decade to provide all students with the STEM education they need and deserve and that the nation is depending upon for both informed civic engagement and workforce development.


I’m grateful for my research collaboration with Ann Austin, University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. Together with Vicki Baker, Professor at Albion College, postdoctoral fellow Adam Grimm at Michigan State, and Levi Shanks, now Director of Academic and Student Affairs at APLU, we have learned much about partnerships from the many networks in our NSF funded research (1725320) about advancing equitable and effective teaching through organization change networks.