STEM Education

I have over 30 years of teaching experience in physics and astronomy, and I also led science curriculum development efforts at Yale-NUS College, Soka University of America and studied STEM education at Yale University, Harvard University, and Stanford University. From these experiences,  I have concluded that the best STEM education is rooted in small classes, experiential learning, and in authentic learning contexts. From my work with curriculum design, I also recognize the power of case studies and project-based learning (PBL) in focusing inquiry by students on relevant and meaningful examples that consolidate and accelerate learning.

The best resource I have developed that summarizes my approaches to STEM teaching is my book from 2020 entitled STEM Education for the 21st Century (Springer).  This book is available online at SpringerLink and explores the history of STEM education in the US,  theories of teaching and learning, and the development of active learning.  It also chronicles the development of online learning and interdisciplinary science curricula. It posits a future for infusing STEM education with liberal arts approaches in this new era of Artificial Intelligence.

As part of the book Higher Education in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, N. Gleason, ed. (available freely through open-access publishing from Springer Link), I have written a chapter on The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Higher Education.  I highly recommend this book as it explores a wide range of issues related to Artificial Intelligence and other “exponential technologies” that define this era and underly the paradigm of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

For convenience, I provide a PDF file for my chapter at the link below and other materials related to STEM education in the links in this section of the website.

PDF File for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Higher Education: 978-981-13-0194-0_9

I also summarize the chapters from my book STEM Education for the 21st Century in separate sections below for convenience.

Chapter 1: History of STEM Education in the USA.  

Chapter 1  provides a comprehensive review of the history of STEM education in the United States, emphasizing the role of diversity within US higher education from Colonial times to the twenty-first century.

The initial universities in the US, established during the Colonial era, were primarily motivated by religious training. Over time, these institutions began to incorporate more science and engineering education as the nation grew. However, early higher education was predominantly accessible to white males, with limited opportunities for women and non-white students.

In the nineteenth century, the founding of liberal arts colleges, historically black colleges, and Land Grant institutions provided more diverse curricula and greater access to higher education for women and African American students. Institutions like Oberlin College began to admit African American and female students, broadening the scope of diversity in education.

The twentieth century saw a significant expansion of the US higher education system, with a corresponding increase in STEM degree recipients. Despite this expansion, access to higher education, particularly in STEM fields, remained unequal across racial and socioeconomic lines. The concept of a meritocratic system and the American Dream was often not realized for students from all racial and ethnic groups, especially in STEM fields. Enrollment, degree completion, and persistence in STEM programs were notably lower for non-white students and women.

The chapter highlights the vital need for diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM education. It calls for systematic changes to support diverse pathways to graduation, reform “weed-out” cultures within science departments, and provide co-curricular support to ensure the success of all students. Greater diversity in STEM is essential for economic competitiveness and social justice. Enhancing diversity in STEM fields will benefit both the individuals involved and the broader society by fostering innovation and addressing inequities.

Chapter 1 concludes with a strong call for integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion within STEM education to fully realize the American Dream and promote a more equitable society. This requires systemic changes in educational practices and policies to support all students’ success, especially those from underrepresented groups.

Chapter 2: Active and Peer-Based Learning

Chapter 2 of “STEM Education for the 21st Century” by Bryan Edward Penprase delves into the evolution and effectiveness of active and peer-based learning in STEM education. This chapter reviews the history of how educators in STEM fields have documented more effective learning through assessments that provided quantitative measures of learning in active-learning environments.

The chapter begins by highlighting the shift from a professor-centered model of teaching, which primarily involves lectures, to a student-centered model known as active learning. This paradigm shift in teaching is compared to the “Copernican Revolution” in science, where the traditional model is replaced with hands-on activities, concept tests, and peer learning, significantly enhancing the effectiveness of classroom time. This transition has revolutionized science teaching across the country, leading to the development of new courses, programs, and departments built on these innovative teaching techniques.

A major component of this transformation is the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), a tool that measures student learning in basic physics and helps quantify the effectiveness of different teaching methods. The FCI has demonstrated that active learning approaches produce significantly larger gains in student understanding compared to traditional lecture-based methods. These findings were corroborated by numerous experiments across various educational institutions, solidifying the validity of active learning within the physics education community.

The chapter also profiles key innovators in active and peer-based learning, starting with Eric Mazur from Harvard University. Mazur’s peer instruction technique allows students to discuss problems in small groups during class, facilitating the construction of knowledge through peer interaction. This method has been enhanced by technology, such as clickers and software that enable real-time feedback and group interactions in large classes. Mazur’s approach has led to substantial improvements in learning outcomes, particularly in physics, and has been adopted by a global community of educators.

Another significant figure discussed is Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate who has been a strong advocate for active learning. Wieman’s research identified several steps to improve STEM teaching, including reducing cognitive load, addressing prior knowledge, motivating topics with real-world applications, and using technology to make classrooms more interactive. His initiatives at the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado have led to widespread adoption of these techniques, significantly improving teaching practices and student learning outcomes.

The chapter further explores the application of active learning in biology through initiatives like BioQuest, SEA-PHAGES, and Tiny Earth. These programs involve students in research-based learning, where they engage in authentic scientific inquiry and contribute to real research projects. This approach not only enhances student engagement and learning but also helps students identify as scientists early in their educational journey. The success of these programs underscores the importance of integrating research-based and active learning techniques across all STEM disciplines to promote deeper understanding and lasting educational benefits.

In conclusion, Chapter 2 emphasizes the transformative impact of active and peer-based learning on STEM education. By adopting these innovative teaching methods, educators can create more engaging, effective, and inclusive learning environments that better prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century.

Chapter 3: Theories of Teaching and Learning

Chapter 3 of “STEM Education for the 21st Century” by Bryan Edward Penprase explores a variety of theories of learning and course design to provide an overview of teaching and learning concepts essential for effective STEM education. The chapter begins by discussing the concept of “Scientific Teaching,” which aims to make teaching more scientific by incorporating critical thinking, creativity, and experimentation into the classroom. This approach is based on the work of Jo Handelsman and emphasizes the need for active learning and continuous assessment to improve student outcomes.

The chapter then delves into several classic theories of learning, including Piaget’s theories of autonomy and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Piaget’s theory emphasizes the importance of cognitive development stages, where students construct knowledge and develop cognitive frameworks through experience. Vygotsky’s ZPD highlights the role of social interactions in learning, where students learn best when guided by more capable peers or instructors within their developmental stage. These theories underscore the importance of scaffolding in teaching, where instructors provide the necessary support for students to progress and eventually become independent learners.

Further, the chapter discusses Belenky’s theories of learning, which document the progression of women through different stages of epistemological positions. Belenky’s work highlights the importance of creating a supportive learning environment that encourages reflection, discussion, and the sharing of personal experiences to promote deeper learning and inclusivity. This approach aligns with the principles of inclusive pedagogy, which seeks to accommodate diverse learning styles and backgrounds.

The chapter also reviews various taxonomies of learning that help structure course design. Bloom’s Taxonomy, the Feisel-Schmitz Taxonomy, and the Miller Taxonomy are described as frameworks for classifying learning objectives and designing curricula. These taxonomies provide a hierarchical structure for learning, starting from basic knowledge acquisition to higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Constructive Alignment is another key concept discussed, which emphasizes aligning teaching methods, assessment tasks, and learning outcomes to ensure that students achieve the desired learning objectives.

Additionally, the chapter introduces the idea of “Threshold Concepts,” which are core ideas in a discipline that are transformative, integrative, and often troublesome for students to grasp. Teaching with threshold concepts involves helping students overcome these cognitive hurdles to achieve a deeper understanding of the subject matter. This approach requires creating a “liminal” space in the classroom, where students feel comfortable exploring and discussing new ideas.

Lastly, the chapter highlights the concept of “Pedagogical Content Knowledge,” which blends disciplinary expertise with pedagogical strategies to enhance student learning. This idea, developed by Lee Shulman, focuses on understanding the most effective ways to represent and teach specific content to students, taking into account their preconceptions and learning difficulties.

In summary, Chapter 3 provides a comprehensive overview of various educational theories and methodologies that can be applied to enhance STEM education. By incorporating active learning, continuous assessment, and inclusive pedagogical practices, educators can create more effective and engaging learning environments that support student success in STEM fields.

Chapter 4: Engineering Education Reconsidered 

Chapter 4 of “STEM Education for the 21st Century” by Bryan Edward Penprase examines how engineering education has evolved to meet the demands of the 21st century. This chapter highlights innovative approaches that blend design thinking with active pedagogies to create dynamic learning environments for engineering students. Through detailed case studies, the chapter illustrates how leading programs are training students for the complex and interdisciplinary tasks of modern engineering.

The chapter begins by discussing the concept of “design thinking” in engineering education. This approach integrates methodologies from social sciences, humanities, and the arts, promoting creativity and interdisciplinary collaboration. The Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID) is a prime example of this new model. Opened in 2012, the CEID provides a space for students from various disciplines to collaborate on engineering projects. The center is equipped with advanced tools and technologies, fostering a creative environment where students can prototype and innovate. The CEID emphasizes interdisciplinary work, encouraging students to incorporate elements from the arts and humanities into their engineering projects.

Next, the chapter explores the “Learn by Doing” approach at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). This program emphasizes hands-on learning through laboratory work and real-world projects. Cal Poly’s engineering curriculum includes initiatives like the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which supports student startups and provides resources for developing new products. The “Learn by Doing” philosophy is evident in programs like the EPIC (Engineering Possibilities in College) summer camp and the CeSaME (Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education) center, which offer students practical experience in engineering and science education.

The chapter also highlights Olin College of Engineering, known for its project-based learning model. Olin’s curriculum is designed around real-world projects that require students to collaborate and apply their engineering skills in practical settings. The college emphasizes “user-oriented collaborative design,” where students work closely with end-users to understand their needs and develop appropriate solutions. Olin’s approach includes unique elements like a lack of academic departments, a gender-balanced student body, and extensive partnerships with other institutions to provide a broad and interdisciplinary education.

The concept of “Liberal Arts Engineering” is another focus of the chapter. This movement seeks to integrate liberal arts disciplines into engineering education to provide a more holistic and humanistic perspective. Programs at institutions like Cal Poly and WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) demonstrate how blending engineering with subjects like ethics, history, and the arts can enhance student learning and engagement. These programs aim to produce engineers who are not only technically proficient but also socially and culturally aware.

Chapter 4 concludes by emphasizing the importance of diversity and interdisciplinary approaches in engineering education. The integration of design thinking, hands-on learning, and liberal arts perspectives is seen as essential for preparing engineers to tackle the complex challenges of the modern world. By fostering creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, these innovative programs are redefining what it means to be an engineer in the 21st century.

Chapter 5: Online Education in STEM

Chapter 5 of “STEM Education for the 21st Century” by Bryan Edward Penprase explores the development and impact of online education in STEM fields, focusing on the rise of MOOCs (Massively Online Open Courses) and their evolution into more sophisticated forms of online learning.

The chapter begins with the phenomenon of MOOCs, which gained significant attention in 2013, known as “The Year of the MOOC.” This period marked a dramatic shift in higher education, where online courses began reaching hundreds of thousands of students worldwide. MOOCs were seen as a transformative technology with the potential to democratize education by providing access to high-quality courses to students in diverse geographic locations. The chapter highlights the rapid growth of online education platforms like Coursera, edX, and Udacity, which offered courses from prestigious universities to a global audience.

The author provides an overview of visits to the leading online learning centers and interviews with their founders, offering insights into the early days of these platforms and their current programs. For example, Coursera, founded by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, initially focused on making university courses accessible online and has since expanded to offer specializations, micro-credentials, and full online degree programs. Similarly, edX, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT, has grown to include numerous partner institutions and offers a variety of online credentials, including MicroMasters programs and professional certificates.

The chapter discusses the evolution of online learning from its inception to the present, highlighting the development of new types of online learning such as stackable micro-credentials and hybrid courses that combine online and in-person instruction. These innovations aim to provide more flexible and accessible education pathways, catering to the needs of diverse learners, including working professionals and lifelong learners.

Penprase examines the challenges and opportunities presented by online education for universities and colleges. One major challenge is ensuring the quality of teaching and learning in online environments. While online courses offer the potential for broader access, they also require new pedagogical approaches and technologies to engage students effectively. The chapter explores how institutions are adapting to these changes by integrating online learning into their traditional curricula and creating new models of blended and flipped classrooms.

The future of online learning is also discussed, with predictions about how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality might further transform education. These technologies have the potential to create more immersive and personalized learning experiences, enhancing student engagement and improving learning outcomes.

In summary, Chapter 5 provides a detailed exploration of the rise and evolution of online education in STEM fields. It highlights the significant impact of MOOCs and other online learning innovations on higher education, the ongoing challenges in maintaining quality and engagement, and the potential future directions of online learning technologies.

Chapter 6:  Interdisciplinary Science

Chapter 6 of “STEM Education for the 21st Century” by Bryan Edward Penprase explores the importance and implementation of interdisciplinary science education. This chapter emphasizes the need for an integrated approach to science education to address the complex and multifaceted problems of the modern world. The chapter begins by highlighting how interdisciplinary research and education have been identified as crucial by various prestigious organizations, including the AAMC, AAAS, NSF, and NRC. These organizations stress that interdisciplinary STEM education is essential for training future scientists and physicians to tackle the pressing issues of the 21st century.

The chapter provides a detailed review of different theories and methods of integrating interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary science education. It introduces a taxonomy of methods for integrating curricula in interdisciplinary programs, showcasing a range of approaches from basic multidisciplinary models to fully integrated transdisciplinary frameworks. This section underscores the importance of moving beyond isolated disciplinary perspectives to create a more cohesive and interconnected learning experience for students.

Several case studies from around the world are presented to illustrate how interdisciplinary science programs can be effectively implemented. These examples range from one-semester courses to four-year degree programs and highlight the diversity of approaches to interdisciplinary education. Notable programs include the Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence (AISS) at the Claremont Colleges, which combines physics, chemistry, and biology into a single cohesive course, and the Integrated Science program at Princeton University, which offers a rigorous, research-oriented curriculum for future scientists.

The chapter also identifies best practices for developing and sustaining interdisciplinary science programs. These practices include selecting faculty based on their interest and ability in interdisciplinary teaching, providing intensive orientation and mentoring for new faculty, and fostering collaboration and communication among faculty members. Regular meetings and retreats for faculty are recommended to ensure coherence and continuous improvement of the curriculum. The chapter emphasizes the importance of common grading rubrics, peer evaluation, and systematic assessment of student outcomes to maintain high standards of teaching and learning.

Furthermore, the chapter discusses the significance of creating administrative structures that support interdisciplinary programs. This includes appointing dedicated faculty and staff, providing appropriate resources, and ensuring that interdisciplinary initiatives are integrated into the broader institutional framework. The chapter also highlights the role of student mentors and research opportunities in enhancing the interdisciplinary learning experience.

In conclusion, Chapter 6 underscores the transformative potential of interdisciplinary science education. By integrating multiple disciplines and emphasizing collaborative, problem-solving approaches, these programs can provide students with a deeper understanding of complex scientific issues and better prepare them for future careers in science and technology. The chapter calls for a continued effort to develop and refine interdisciplinary science curricula to meet the evolving needs of students and society.

Chapter 7: The Future of STEM Teaching and Learning

Chapter 7 of “STEM Education for the 21st Century” by Bryan Edward Penprase addresses the profound changes and future directions for STEM teaching and learning in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR). This chapter explores how emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are reshaping the educational landscape and necessitating new approaches to STEM education.

The chapter begins by framing the FIR as a pivotal moment comparable to previous industrial revolutions, which were driven by advancements in steam power, electricity, and digital technology. The FIR is characterized by exponential technologies that evolve at an accelerated pace, demanding that education systems adapt swiftly to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. The transformative potential of these technologies extends beyond manufacturing, influencing the economy, society, and higher education.

Penprase provides a historical overview of how the First and Second Industrial Revolutions reshaped education by introducing new sources of power and energy, which led to significant societal changes. Similarly, the Third Industrial Revolution, marked by the advent of computers and digital technology, has brought about unprecedented access to information and global communication, further influencing educational paradigms.

The chapter emphasizes that the FIR requires a shift in STEM education towards interdisciplinary approaches that integrate physical, chemical, biological, and economic dimensions of problems. This interconnected understanding is essential for addressing global challenges such as climate change, resource management, and technological ethics. The FIR curriculum must train students to navigate and manage complex systems characterized by rapid feedback loops and exponential responses.

New sequencing of education is proposed to continually renew skills throughout one’s career, acknowledging that the rapid pace of technological change necessitates lifelong learning. Initiatives like the Stanford2025 project envision models such as the “open loop university,” where students can engage in education at various points in their careers, blending learning with life experiences. This approach aims to keep both alumni and current students up-to-date with the latest advancements and practices in their fields.

Penprase also explores the emerging realities from the FIR, including the convergence of AI, Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology, which create novel interdisciplinary fields and demand new forms of STEM literacy. The integration of humanities and STEM education is highlighted as crucial for developing a comprehensive understanding of the ethical and societal implications of these technologies.

The chapter concludes by advocating for a proactive approach to curriculum development that emphasizes interactive pedagogy, interdisciplinary perspectives, and ethical considerations. It calls for educational institutions to adapt quickly to maintain their relevance and effectively prepare students for leadership roles in a world of accelerating change.

In summary, Chapter 7 underscores the necessity of evolving STEM education to keep pace with the rapid advancements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It advocates for interdisciplinary learning, continuous skill renewal, and a curriculum that addresses both technical mastery and ethical responsibility, ensuring that students are equipped to navigate and shape the future responsibly.

(note: these summaries were generated with the help of Chat GPT 4o).