Learning about Learning – AAC&U STEM Conference 2016

Last week the Association of American Colleges and Universities hosted a conference titled, “Transforming Undergraduate STEM Education: Implications for 21st-Century Societyin Boston. It was fantastic! I was joined by a number of faculty from SU, as well as our Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Not only did we learn a lot, but we got to get to know each other better, see that we have been implementing some best practices already, and we listened to some truly inspirational speakers. I’ll write about some of the things I learned and people I met…

Thursday

The first day of the conference was Thursday and included the option of participating in one of four pre-conference workshops. I chose to attend Workshop 4: Project Kaleidoscope Leadership Development for STEM Faculty. The workshop focused on the “underlying theory that supports Project Kaleidoscope’s unique approach to leadership development” and it engaged “both SLI alumni and other STEM faculty and administrators in hands-on leadership training experiences designed to impart immediate efficacy in directing campus-based and/or national undergraduate STEM reform initiatives.” While I am still a bit early career to actually participate in the institute, it was interesting to hear about what seasoned faculty had to say about the issues/obstacles one experiences when trying to initiate change, and the skills needed to overcome them. We also did a fun activity that reminded me of the EarthQuake Activity that I did with students at LeaderShape last January (which, if you get the chance to participate in LeaderShape as a faculty member, you should do it!). It was all about managing a group as a leader, which really means appreciating that everyone has different input and skills and a good leader is able to tap everyone and guide the group forward, not just do all the work themselves. The game was one of the ‘experiential learning experiences’ that the institute uses to develop skills in the participants. Outside of what I learned about being a faculty member by listening to the other workshop participants, I was also able to start meeting some cool people. Yay, networking!

The Keynote Address was also delivered Thursday by Dr. Eric Mazur. He’s a physicist at Harvard, but what I admire most about him is how he has contributed to completely changing how we teach in the undergraduate classroom. He told us about how he started his teaching career by using just the passive lecturing that we are all too familiar with. However, with some observations and experimentation, he perfected “peer instruction” which involves students working in small groups to teach themselves the underlying concepts by working on questions. This technique is one that had been drilled into me as I was completing the Preparing Future Faculty program at UC. So, to hear Dr. Mazur speak about it was inspirational and totally awesome and I totally fan-girled out about it.

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Dr. Eric Mazur and I.  I refer to him as E-Maz when I am talking to my other nerd friends. 🙂

I do sincerely hope that someday I am contributing to pedagogy the way that he has and am traveling around to tell people about it. Again, this was a highlight of the weekend.

Friday

The next day was tidal-wave upon tidal-wave of information, just as any good conference is. The morning began with a poster session where I focused on presentations within Theme I:  Undergraduate STEM Teaching and Learning: Contexts, Content, and Relevancy. I reasoned that the information within this theme was immediately relevant to me and what I do everyday. The other themes were:

Theme II: Supporting, Rewarding, and Building Capacity of STEM Faculty
Theme III:  Inclusive Excellence/Broadening Participation in STEM Higher Education
Theme IV:  Assessment and Evidence for High-Quality Undergraduate STEM Learning
Theme V: Understanding Effective Strategies for Transforming Institutional Cultures for Undergraduate STEM reform

While all of these are important, I think I’ll appreciate many of them later when I am tenure-track/tenured and part of the leadership of a department or program.

As I mentioned above, I learned a lot about what other schools are doing in their STEM programs, ranging from specific assignments to course sequences. What was even better was that I am already doing a lot of these things in class and SU is also incorporating some hot new practices into the Biology/Neuroscience curriculum!

In addition to poster sessions, there were concurrent breakout sessions with the same themes. Again, I tried to focus on Theme I to see what I could incorporate into my classroom. One session was on inclusivity in the classroom, another was on the benefits and challenges of an online classroom. The inclusivity session I liked because it was an opportunity to talk with other faculty about what they do and we had time to think about resources needed to make the classroom comfortable for every learner. The online course session, however, was literally just a discussion, no actual examples or tools were discussed, so that was a little flat for me.

All-in-all, a fantastic day. Our SU group finished the day with dinner at an amazing Italian restaurant called Davio’s (WOW) and some rich conversation on work and life. I think this is a good time to mention, again, that I work with some really great people!

Saturday

The final day of the conference had a single breakout session and then the plenary. Of all of the sessions I attended, the one on Saturday was the best. It was about the strategies that women in STEM use to navigate through the bias they face in the workplace. The speaker, Matteo Cruz, was engaging and enlightening. His presentation data was based on that which he had collected surveying women at various stages of their careers. It really hit home because I recognized strategies I have used and those I have seen other faculty use. Really, that we are still trying to even the playing field between men and women is ridiculous, but it’s a fact. Programming such as this is great for women to prepare themselves, but honestly, EVERYONE (yes, men too) needs to buy-in and listen to these issues if we are going to move forward. Anyway, I was so inspired that I am going to try to bring Matteo to SU to speak with our Women in STEM student group, as well as faculty across the university.

To close, we had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Tyrone Hayes of Harvard tell his story of being just a little boy interested in frogs to becoming a major-player in researching how pesticides are a public health hazard. The man is brilliant, and a hell of a story teller. Yet again, I sat in the audience, completely inspired by him and his story. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture, but I did get to introduce myself and thank him!

Take-aways of the weekend:

  1. I still have a lot to learn, not just about best classroom practices, but also about how to be a contributing and leading faculty member at my institution.
  2. To follow-up #1, being a faculty member doesn’t mean that my responsibilities stop in the classroom or lab. To be good, I think you have to jump in, both feet, into the institution and try to influence positive change at all levels.
  3. I want to be a GREAT teacher someday; I want to find new/the best ways to reach my students. I want my students to be able to learn highly complex material because I am delivering it clearly, giving them the necessary resources and facilitating the right activities, I will have become great.

Outside of the academics of the weekend, I also got to wander around Boston a bit. I was luck enough to see some college teammates – Jordan, Jake, and Marsha – as we watch the Cubs work on winning the world series. No joke, the game was tied the entire time I was at the bar and didn’t budge till I got my cab back to the hotel!

I also checked out a couple pastry shops and many of the sights of downtown Boston with Massooma.

Well, time to get back to it…the semester will be wrapping up soon and I will have plenty to report on as far as those group projects!

Cheers!

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