A STEM Reform Solar System: Academic Departments and Institutional Elements Orbiting Them

Mary Deane Sorcinelli
Professor Emeritus & Senior Fellow
UMass Amherst

In this session, we share key findings from the AAU’s Leveraging Study, which examines the complex institutional environment in which innovations to undergraduate STEM education take place. Our goal was to understand more deeply what the implementation of undergraduate STEM education reforms looks like on an individual campus. What strategies are distinct campuses putting in place to support improvement? To what degree does campus context shape reform efforts at different levels of the institution? Over a two-year period, we conducted multiple site visits at eight AAU public and private universities. We facilitated 222 individual or small group meetings and interviewed 395 unique STEM staff, faculty, chairs, deans, and provosts to better understand what factors influence the implementation, institutionalization, and coordination of multiple reform efforts within a single campus to improve undergraduate STEM teaching and learning. To visualize the complex institutional environment of undergraduate STEM reform, we imagine a solar system model in which the academic department is the sun, exerting a powerful influence on faculty decisions about teaching and learning through its structures, policies, practices, and in the values of its faculty. We’ve also identified eight key institutional elements that we envision as planets, orbiting around the department, which can influence its behaviors and actions. Through a balance of different types of activities (e.g., individual/paired, group work, mini presentation) we unpack the analogy of a STEM reform solar system, apply the findings to participants’ institutional settings, and share strategic approaches for supporting undergraduate STEM education reforms in teaching and learning.


Tara King Tara.King@aau.edu