Project SEA Change: a generative approach to STEM education reform

Narmin Ghalichi
Postdoctoral Research Assistant
Bowling Green State University

Need: Efforts to improve STEM education have historically been made from a deficit perspective, moving initially from concentration on individual students, to STEM faculty, and more recently to deficits at the institutional level. Regardless of the level targeted, the design of change initiatives has tended to share the same diagnostic inclination. Indeed, the highly influential Vision & Change (AAAS 2011) has championed this mindset very effectively over the past two decades. A recent update (Levers for Change 2019) continues to promote a scientific approach to teaching and the use of active-learning strategies, while broadening attention to diversity and inclusion. While such approaches have made significant advances (Deslauriers et al. 2019, Freeman et al. 2014), we suggest it is time to consider whether an alternative approach might further accelerate change. Guiding Question: Project SEA Change (DUE 1525623) was designed to address three root challenges to improving undergraduate STEM education (viz., accessibility, quantitative literacy, and research-based instructional practice), using emergent strategies and targeting explicit cultural change among faculty, administrators, and students. Here we report on the first two of those groups, exploring the extent to which intervening to reframe language can change mindset (Aragón et al. 2018), and ultimately behavior. We hosted a series of containers for generative conversations in a variety of formats and time scales, including a single kickoff ‘Indaba’, biweekly ‘Science Friday’ gatherings, a monthly faculty learning community which arose organically, and an annual Summer Institute for Administrators & Faculty (SIAF). While conventionally structured around STEM pedagogy topics writ large, containers were philosophically generative; with clear intent but flexible plans allowing for transformational change. We complemented this emergent work with a range of quantitative and qualitative measurements in pre-/post format, including direct measurement of student quantitative literacy (QL; Quantitative Reasoning Test), surveying faculty use of research-based instructional strategies (RBIS; following Borrego et al. 2013), social network analyses, and semi-structured interviews to surface epistemological beliefs. Outcomes: Over the course of Project SEA Change student QL improved by 22% and faculty social networks increased in density and revealed the value of connecting faculty. RBIS surveys conducted 5-years apart revealed two significant changes in faculty thinking compared to baseline; firstly in the belief that students would react negatively, and secondly in acceptance of the evidence for efficacy of RBIS, but without detectable changes in classroom pedagogies, suggesting that the primary driver of change is to be found elsewhere. Faculty Interviews surfaced modifications of epistemological beliefs (Nespor 1987) as a result of conversations as the most likely cause.Broader Impacts: Devising containers for discourse is inexpensive, but effective implementation and co-creation for generative conversations is not trivial. It requires faculty practiced in the art of hosting and role flexibility. Most challenging for STEM faculty are likely to be use of self, and fully suspending the diagnostic mindset. While the advent of Covid-19 created the greatest disruption experienced in higher education for many decades, it also provides opportunity to reframe the narrative around STEM education for a more generative future.


Narmin Ghalichi, Bowling Green State University; Clare Barratt, Bowling Green State University; Moira Van Staaden, Bowling Green State University