News Release

New NSF-AAAS report highlights 'learning communities,' other STEM educational strategies

New NSF-AAAS report highlights 'learning communities' and other inquiry-based STEM educational strategies

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

On the western edge of Minnesota's iron range in Grand Rapids, engineering enrollment at the rural, two-year Itasca Community College has jumped from four students in 1983 to 130 students today. At Itasca, first-generation college students -- many from blue-collar families struggling to overcome the decline of iron mining and paper production -- are sticking with the program, seemingly against all odds.

Key to the engineering program, director Ronald Ulseth said, is an educational strategy called a "learning community." Now common to humanities programs, learning communities emerged much more recently within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The learning-community approach is one of many innovative, "inquiry-based" strategies outlined in a new report from the National Science Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Invention and Impact: Building Excellence in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education.

"Itasca is a wonderful example of how learning communities nationwide are working to retain science, technology, engineering and mathematics students," said Rosemary R. Haggett, director of the NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR/DUE). "With U.S. enrollments in these fields declining, it's more important than ever to keep every student engaged in learning."

Because Itasca students work in small cohorts, receive intensive personal coaching, study in common areas, socialize together, and even wear the same tie-dyed T-shirts, Ulseth explained, they develop an extraordinary bond with the college, and with each other. "We're big into ownership and identity," added Ulseth, a 1984 Itasca graduate whose grandparents worked in the local iron and paper industries. "The way I see it, my students are coming from home -- my home. And, when you are a part of a community like that, you don't want to leave your friends and your teachers. You have a reason to stay in school." Common physical space, intensive personal coaching, small student groups, and a strong college identity help to provide Itasca's engineering students with the tools they need to succeed, he said.

Building a sense of community may be especially important for isolated, rural schools like Itasca, which is located 180 miles north of Minneapolis/St. Paul. But, learning communities also are useful for reaching women and underrepresented students in any setting, said Ulseth. "Our environment works even better for women than for men, on a percentage basis," he said. "We also have had success in retaining students from nearby American Indian communities."

Overall, according to Ulseth, some 80 percent of Itasca's two-year engineering students make it to graduation, and more than 90 percent of all graduates go on to obtain their bachelor's degrees in engineering.

The learning-community approach has been adopted by at least 500 colleges and universities, according to the National Learning Communities Project. But, Ulseth and Haggett said, various inquiry-based education strategies, including learning communities, have been much slower to reach the STEM fields.

"Historically, faculty in undergraduate STEM programs have tended to prefer the lecture method," noted Yolanda S. George, deputy director of Education & Human Resources at AAAS, a co-author of the new NSF-AAAS report. "Fostering inquiry-based teaching in a biology or physics course can be a hard sell."

Yet, inquiry-based learning methods "are a more effective, more inclusive way to reach a broad spectrum of students, and also for teaching content as well as basic skills," added Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education & Human Resources. "If America hopes to make positive contributions toward solving world problems in the future, we must find new ways to tap more of the potential talent pool, and that means recruiting, engaging and retaining all students."

Invention and Impact is based on a 16-18 April, 2004 conference where some 400 participants learned about new teaching methods resulting from the Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program at NSF. Former NSF program director Theodore Hodapp, now director of education with the American Physical Society, said the CCLI conference brought together scientists of virtually every stripe. "This mixing alone contributed positively toward our second goal of bridging disciplinary boundaries and building collaborations," he noted. Another NSF program director, Myles Boylan, noted that highlights of the conference included an "interactive plenary" by physicist Eric Mazur, who holds a triple appointment on the Harvard University faculty.

The CCLI program, established five years ago, has supported 1,750 innovative teaching projects at 600 institutions, involving 1.4 million students and 25,000 faculty members.

Successful inquiry-based strategies "often involve multiple institutions working together," Haggett said. "It's also important for educators to know what their students know, meaning that they must understand how students view the world, and also assess learning outcomes. This is why assessments of students' learning are another important focus of the CCLI program."

Examples of inquiry-based learning methods include "just-in-time teaching," which allows educators to tailor lessons after checking students' web-based assignments; "peer-led team teaching," which makes even large classes seem intimate as student-leaders direct workshops; creative faculty-development methods; case study-based learning; web-based tools; virtual laboratories; visualization methods; and more.

In addition to Ron Ulseth's program in Minnesota, some specific innovative U.S. undergraduate education efforts cited in the NSF-AAAS Invention and Impact report include the following projects:

PEER-LED TEAM LEARNING (Chicago, IL; Missoula, MT; New York, NY):

Pratibha Varma-Nelson of Northeastern Illinois University and colleagues at the University of Montana and the City College of New York have developed an inquiry-based teaching method centered around student-leaders. Students who have successfully completed courses and demonstrate enthusiasm for learning and teaching are tapped to lead two-hour workshops with their peers. The workshops supplement 2-3 hours of traditional lectures per week. Though educators initially were skeptical about giving student-leaders such authority, "students' passion for and eloquence about being a peer leader … quickly and easily convinced us that students can indeed be partners," the CCLI investigators wrote in Invention and Impact.


Educators know that students learn most effectively in small, "studio-style classes," but how can teachers make large, introductory physics courses seem intimate? Robert J. Beichner of North Carolina State University and Jeffrey M. Saul of the University of Central Florida use restaurant-style round tables and a menu of engaging activities as part of a method called SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs). Attendance in SCALE-UP courses tends to be much higher than in traditional lecture/lab courses, Beichner and Saul reported (90.3 percent versus 75 percent). And, "students do as well or better on common exam problems than their peers in lecture/laboratory classes." Further, they said, the performance of African American and women students improves dramatically in SCALE-UP courses.


The Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Jupiter, FL, is part of a 2,050-acre planned development in a mixed-use community called Abacoa. Some 350 students at the college use a nearby 267-acre greenway system as a natural laboratory to study water management and natural habitats. "Students in Introductory Biology examine, for instance, the difference in species diversity in disturbed and undisturbed areas in the greenways," explained CCLI investigators Jon Moore and Stephanie Fitchett. Golf-course ponds stimulate studies of fertilizer impacts. Faculty studies of tortoise populations provide a springboard for student projects, too.


"In the near future," NSF program officer Steve Cunningham said, "We expect to see computer-based visualization work becoming a common part of science education." Felice Frankel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), along with some of her students, like Marianna Schnayderman, are already translating science into pictures to better understand complex concepts. Schnayderman sketched nanoscience concepts, then created Flash animations and worked with an expert to check the accuracy of her efforts. "Thinking how to visually express an idea is also a means of clarifying the ideas," said Frankel, who uses "visual metaphors" in her teaching, too.

The new NSF-AAAS report, Invention and Impact, "is the first truly comprehensive volume on what's happening in terms of undergraduate educational reform efforts across all the STEM fields," Yolanda George of AAAS said. "We hope that it will serve as a resource tool for undergraduate reform."

The report is online at A limited supply of print copies are available to working reporters (contact the press officers listed above). Non-reporters also may obtain printed copies, while supplies last, for $19.95 (for more than five copies, please inquire about shipping and handling costs). Non-reporters, please e-mail


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