Researchers' work puts WMU at center of national STEM network

Contact: Cheryl Roland
Dr. Andrea Beach.


KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University researchers have parlayed a series of federal and foundation grants and connections with some of the nation's leading higher education organizations into an effort that positions WMU at the central hub of a network of national educators working to build systemic change that will boost undergraduate academic achievement.

WMU's Center for Research on Instructional Change in Post-Secondary Education is led by Drs. Andrea Beach and Charles Henderson. They have just received a new $905,141 award from the National Science Foundation to support a national network—the Accelerating Systemic Change Network, or ASCN—that builds on what they and other national researchers have learned about improving instruction in the disciplines known as STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The network's focus will be on using those lessons learned to create systemic change and build learning environments that will improve student achievement.

"Knowing what needs to be done does not equal knowing how to move an institution or department toward that goal," says Beach.

Because change processes are complex and research-based STEM discipline change practices are relatively new, she says, there is currently no organization that coordinates new initiatives and findings. This is why ASCN was created.

"People interested in changing the undergraduate STEM experience are all over the place, geographically, and people in different disciplines have difficulty connecting with each other," Beach says. "Because of that, change is slower than it should be. The ASCN steering committee consists of 20 administrators, evaluators, faculty members, economists and representatives of as many varied disciplines as possible to focus on both the creation and management of knowledge. We're looking at the big issues that must be addressed to create the systemic change needed."

Focusing on 'the big questions'

Dr. Charles Henderson.


Beach and Henderson say ASCN will be a bridge between explicit academic knowledge about change in the STEM disciplines and the on-the-ground knowledge of active teachers and change agents. The researchers will be carefully looking at the intersection of theory and change strategies as they consider what they already know will work to improve student achievement. Their focus will be on framing the network around big questions, such as:

  • How to use theory.
  • How to evaluate and measure costs.
  • Determine the kind of leadership necessary for systemic change.
  • How to measure effectiveness.
  • How to incentivize organizations to change.
  • How to ensure equity and inclusion as change takes place.

The new NSF award was preceded, in 2016, by a $794,612 grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, as well smaller scale support form AAU—the Association of American Universities—the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The 2016 funding allowed ASCN to begin its work. In June, ASCN partnered with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities to bring 40 higher education institutions together for a workshop on diversity and inclusion in undergraduate STEM education. In August, the network launched a Change Agent Institute for Scaling and Sustaining Institutional Change, a yearlong team-based professional development experience to support systemic change. That effort began with a 2.5-day kickoff event for seven institutional teams in Portland, Oregon.

New NSF funding will launch change network

The new NSF funding will support a five-year network development initiative that will officially begin in January 2018. In addition to WMU's Beach and Henderson, the work will be led by Dr. Linda Slakey of AAU and the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Dr. Maura Borrego of the University of Texas Austin. Slakey is the former director of the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education and Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Borrego is a longtime NSF-funded researcher at the University of Texas Austin who has focused on undergraduate engineering education.

Henderson notes the ASCN will be centered at WMU and reflect WMU's commitment to STEM education.

"WMU is heavily involved nationally as a leader in STEM education change," he notes. Our research center here has 11 projects currently underway, and 10 of them are STEM projects. Right now, we have $6.7 million in active grants. With this ASCN effort, our goal is to establish a community of change agents and researchers who will be actively involved in producing knowledge about how change happens in STEM."

In addition to their research roles, both Beach and Henderson are veteran faculty members at WMU. Beach is a professor of educational leadership, research and technology. Henderson is a professor of physics and director of the Mallinson Institute for Science Education.

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