WMU office lands two NSF grants to boost teaching of science

Contact: Mark Schwerin
Photo of a WMU sign.

The grants will assist with the study of teaching of STEM disciplines.

KALAMAZOO—Western Michigan University's Science and Mathematics Program Improvement unit has received two grants totaling $529,000 from the National Science Foundation to enhance teaching and help retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the STEM disciplines.

The grants will fund two portions of a common project called Automated Analysis of Constructed Responses III. Prior work under the common project also was funded by the NSF.

Six-university team

WMU will be part of a team consisting of faculty from six universities across the country carrying out research intended to assist science, technology, engineering and mathematics faculty in understanding and responding to student thinking and misconceptions regarding major concepts covered in their undergraduate coursework. WMU's Science and Mathematics Program Improvement will serve as external evaluators for the project.

Michigan State University is the lead institution. In addition to WMU and MSU, partners include the University of Southern Florida, the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Maine and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. WMU's Science and Mathematics Program Improvement is entirely grant-funded, and the two grants will give a big boost to SAMPI's bottom line.

"A huge percentage of students drop out of science majors after their first year," says Dr. Mary Anne Sydlik, SAMPI director and head of WMU's evaluation team. "STEM undergrads struggle, for a number of reasons, which in turn can lead to low grades and the impulse to transfer into non-STEM majors."

Part of the problem is that the multiple-choice tests used in large classes do not always reflect whether a student fully understands the underlying concepts represented in individual questions. Faculty using multiple-choice questions do not get the feedback on student thinking, particularly misconceptions, needed to support students' mastery of the subject. The NSF-funded initiative is designed to allow faculty to use an automated system that analyzes students' written answers to questions and then provides a report documenting where the class as a whole needs more assistance with difficult topics or concepts.

Project goals

The project has two main goals. One is to continue creating and validating questions for use in introductory biology, chemistry, chemical engineering and statistics courses and to develop a Web portal to analyze students' written answers to homework, quizzes and test questions. The second goal is to form discipline-based learning communities for biology, chemistry, statistics and engineering faculty interested in new methods of assessment and using automated analysis to inform their teaching. The research team will determine the extent to which participation in the faculty learning community impacts a sustained adoption of the new assessment tools and changes in how participating faculty address student difficulties and misconceptions.

WMU Science and Mathematics Program Improvement will work closely with project team members as they develop and implement the effort. SAMPI's evaluation work will focus on documenting the initiative's impact on the project team and participating faculty, whether the project is carried out as intended, the strengths and limitations of the initiative, and the project's potential impact on prevailing models of undergraduate STEM education.