CAREER award aids Stains’ research on STEM teaching in college


Ashley Washburn, February 16, 2016 | View original publication

CAREER award aids Stains’ research on STEM teaching in college

For decades, researchers have investigated how college students best learn science, but how faculty teach those students gets less attention. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher is helping faculty become better instructors with the goal of improving students’ education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM.

Marilyne Stains, assistant professor of chemistry, recently earned a five-year, $941,174 Faculty Early Career Development Program Award from the National Science Foundation to comprehensively study university STEM teaching and to improve programs that train faculty to better teach science. These prestigious grants, known as CAREER awards, support pre-tenure faculty who exemplify the role of teachers-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research.

“There’s a growing recognition that we have been developing all of these new instructional strategies that we know are more effective, yet STEM faculty aren’t using them,” Stains said. “Now there is an interest in training faculty.”

UNL is a national leader in improving STEM education at the college level, she said, creating active learning spaces and hiring STEM education researchers like her. Several years ago, with NSF funding, Stains began developing and conducting education workshops to train UNL faculty in new teaching methods.

“If we want our workshops to be effective, we have to understand how faculty think about teaching,” she said. “We have to understand the gaps in their knowledge so that we can target their needs more specifically and effectively.”

The CAREER award will allow her to examine faculty teaching methods. The study includes understanding what faculty know about new educational strategies, their beliefs about teaching, and other factors that influence teaching choices, such as departmental norms around education and individual instructors’ career levels.

The U.S. economy increasingly relies on workers with STEM skills. But attracting and retaining students in these fields remains a challenge for UNL and universities nationwide. Studies demonstrate that new educational strategies improve attitudes toward STEM fields, increasing retention and learning, Stains said. That effect is even greater among women and minority students, groups underrepresented in STEM disciplines.

“The ultimate goal is for faculty to implement these practices that we know increase retention of students in STEM fields,” she said.

Stains’ research will be more comprehensive than previous STEM faculty teaching studies, incorporating numerous influences on instructional decisions and analyzing videotaped classes and in-depth interviews. She will follow faculty over time to determine how teaching practices adapt based on changing influences, such as workshop attendance or evolving institutional norms around teaching. UNL faculty will constitute half of her subjects; the other half will come from participants in national education workshops.

Her research will help inform STEM faculty education nationally. At UNL, the CAREER award also will allow her to improve faculty education workshops and, importantly, provide individualized follow-up with faculty research participants, offering suggestions and ongoing feedback on their teaching.

She will also help develop and implement a teaching specialization program for UNL chemistry graduate students. Specialized training that prepares future chemistry faculty to teach college-level science is “critically missing in most chemistry and STEM doctoral programs at UNL and nationwide,” Stains said.