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Faculty from several units will take part in the Department and Leadership Teams for Action, or DeLTA, project as part of a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to help students develop STEM knowledge and skills. (Photo credit: Dorothy Kozlowski)

By Sam Fahmy

More than 100 University of Georgia faculty members in science, technology, engineering and math will collaborate on a comprehensive research project that seeks to transform STEM education on campus and at research universities nationwide.

Funded by a $3 million National Science Foundation grant, teams of faculty members will create, implement and assess active learning materials to help students better develop STEM knowledge and skills. The multi-level project also involves department heads, the Office of Faculty Affairs and Office of Instruction, who will work together to explore ways to better support, incentivize and reward effective, evidence-based STEM instruction. Research findings, at both the disciplinary level and at the department and institutional levels, will be broadly disseminated to improve student learning outcomes at UGA and at research institutions nationwide.

“Once again, the University of Georgia is setting an example as a national leader in undergraduate education,” said President Jere W. Morehead. “I am pleased that our outstanding faculty will be helping to strengthen education in these critical fields through their research.”

STEM education is in high demand, both nationally and at UGA. At a national level, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment in science and engineering fields to grow by nearly 20 percent in the coming years. At UGA, 22 percent of undergraduate students earned degrees in STEM fields last year, compared to 18 percent just five years earlier.

“We were in a really good position to secure this grant because of a number of things at UGA that help us leverage the funding, like the Science Learning Center and its SCALE-UP classrooms, the small class hiring initiative and the active learning initiative that’s currently underway,” said principal investigator Paula Lemons, an associate professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology who leads an interdisciplinary center on campus known as Scientists Engaged in Education Research, or SEER. “These are all investments in instruction that enable us to design and test better learning experiences for students.”

To improve the quality of STEM education, faculty members at UGA and across the nation are increasingly using active learning methodologies that open up class time for students to solve problems and make sense of concepts with guidance. As best practices at a classroom level become more clearly defined, the National Science Foundation has sought to scale the use of evidence-based instruction to departments and universities. Lemons has been studying the science of teaching and learning for more than a decade, and she and her colleagues at UGA have collectively authored nearly 200 research publications that illuminate how effective teaching can improve student success.

The new project at UGA is formally known as Department and Leadership Teams for Action, or DeLTA, and it is inherently a team effort. Lemons’ co-principal investigators are Tessa Andrews, assistant professor in the department of genetics; Peggy Brickman, Meigs Professor in the department of plant biology; and Erin Dolan, Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Innovative Science Education in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology. In addition to Lemons and her Franklin College of Arts and Sciences colleagues, Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs Sarah Covert also is a co-principal investigator. This core team of five will work with senior administrators as well as department heads and other faculty members in biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, physics and statistics to bring the total number of collaborators to more than 100 over five years.

“If our goal is to change what happens in the classroom for students, then we can’t just focus on an individual classroom or instructor because each instructor is part of a department, part of a discipline and part of a broader university,” Andrews said. “We need to make sure the entire system is working together to support evidence-based instruction and reduce achievement gaps.”

Beginning in fall 2019, students who take courses in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics and statistics will begin to see an increased use of active learning methods in their classroom. The DeLTA project will continue through 2024, and its long-term goal is to inspire a culture change in the way that STEM courses are taught by faculty and supported by departments and the institution.

“The goal is not to do away with the lecture format,” Lemons emphasized, “but for instructors to be able to use evidence rather than tradition to choose the teaching method that best serves students.”

The DeLTA project comes on the heels of an Active Learning Initiative that is being implemented based upon recommendations of the Task Force on Student Learning and Success charged by Morehead. As a result of the initiative, 32 faculty members recently completed an Active Learning Summer Institute, a new teaching laboratory is in development to enable instructors to examine and test different technologies or classroom configurations that promote active learning, and select classrooms with fixed chairs are being transformed into active learning spaces.

Core commitments for STEM education

The DeLTA project at the University of Georgia seeks to transform STEM education on campus and at research universities nationwide through the use of active learning materials and other forms of evidence-based instruction. The project is guided by five core commitments:

1. Design educational experiences to achieve clear and measurable learning outcomes.

2. Base education decisions on evidence, including students’ conceptions, capabilities and attitudes.

3. Actively collaborate and communicate about undergraduate education.

4. Foster continuous teaching improvement.

5. Promote inclusion and diversity