Executive Summary

This mixed-methods study examined four STEM communities (BioQUEST, Project Kaleidoscope, the POGIL Project, and SENCER) in order to better understand the roles of these communities in advancing the goals of scaling STEM education reform. The project explored three key questions:

  • How do members and leaders of communities of practice (CoPs1) perceive CoP design (membership, structure, communication, activities, and organization to support new knowledge development and action) shapes the ability to achieve goals (around undergraduate STEM pedagogical change and diffusion)?
  • What are the perceived benefits of participation in a STEM reform community of practice or network for the individual participants and for their campuses?
  • How do communities of practice and networks form, and how are they sustained in ways that help them to achieve their goals?

The following are the key findings related to these questions:

  1. The study identified a novel approach to improving STEM education, which we have called communities of transformation.

    This study identified a unique variant of communities of practice, called communities of transformation (CoTs) that are present in the STEM reform area. Th e defining feature of these newly identified entities is their focus on exploring philosophically, in deep and fundamental ways, how science is taught. This can lead to more substantive changes that have the potential to address the problems described in national reports around underrepresentation of women and underserved minorities, persistence rates, and success among students. These communities of transformation create innovative spaces that have the potential to shift institutional and disciplinary norms. We identify how these differ from more traditional professional development models, including campus-based professional development and disciplinary meetings.

  2. Communities of transformation address both individual faculty and broader systemic change.

    Much of the early work to improve STEM education has focused on altering individual faculty behavior through faculty development and dissemination of best practices. Some more recent efforts (e.g., Association of American Universities’ STEM reform initiative) focus on changing broader systemic and institutional norms. Communities of transformation provide support for individual faculty change, but they also simultaneously work (to varying degrees) to shift departmental cultures, institutional norms, and disciplinary values. In this report, we describe work that these communities conducted to alter the conversation around teaching within disciplines, as well as evidence of broader impact achieved through service on national committees and task forces aimed at improving STEM education. Their unique work to address both the individual faculty and the broader system is a compelling strategy for change. We found that the strength of these efforts lies in working from the ground up, with individual faculty buy-in, motivation, and support for improving practice. Additionally, in general, institutional type, discipline, and rank/appointment status were not significantly associated with the outcomes we measured, when accounting for our other engagement, design, and motivation variables. We think this points to the potential for CoTs resembling those in our study to contribute to overcoming typical barriers to reform such as reward structures, disciplinary cultures, and a lack of institutional leadership.

  3. Benefits of these communities accrue to both individual faculty and to their institutions.

    Participants reported that the greatest benefits of involvement in these communities came in the form of learning and improving in their teaching, reenergizing them in their sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in their work, and gaining credibility for their work related to STEM reform. Additionally, nearly 35% of participants indicated that engagement in these communities contributed to changes related to STEM reform in their departments, while more than one in five participants indicated that some sort of institutional change had come about as a result of involvement in these communities. We also identified how involvement of several individuals from a single institution increased departmental and institutional benefits. In fact, one of the largest effect sizes we observed to predict departmental and institutional benefits came from having more peers from the same institution involved together in the community. In general, it is also important to recognize that the longer faculty remained involved with these groups, the more benefits they reported.

  4. Communities of transformation provide significant benefits for women faculty and for faculty of color.

    For nearly all of the individual benefits we studied (except for involvement leading to publications), female faculty members reported statistically significantly greater benefits resulting from their participation in these communities than their male counterparts. Faculty of color indicated greater benefits than White faculty members in several key areas: networking, being afforded the opportunity to pursue new grants or projects, gaining credibility for their approach to professional work, and gaining skills to make the transition from faculty work to administration.

  5. Positive outcomes follow from an engaging philosophy that is lived in programmatic activities and fostered through a supportive and mentoring community.

    Faculty report that they make gains, such as improved teaching, becoming leaders for change, and renewed enthusiasm for their careers, as a result of the engaging philosophies that are part of these four communities of transformation. Survey results and interviews both suggest that embedding the philosophy in events, workshops, newsletters, and other key communications made faculty better able to adopt new approaches to teaching/learning. Faculty also appreciated role modeling by leaders in these communities. Th e communities of transformation had a system for bringing new faculty along by first brainstorming changes and ideas with them, then helping them address challenges on their campuses, and then providing more formal mentoring. Further, leadership that espouses and models the philosophy, fostering a supportive culture, further contributes to achieving outcomes.

  6. Communities of transformation follow similar trajectories as they evolve from an idea to a community.

    The lifecycles of these communities of transformation follow a similar trajectory that moves from showing potential (testing out initial ideas, obtaining initial grants, coming together for discussion over years of gestation), to coalescing (naming the problem, forming cultures), to maturing (building communities, obtaining new grants, developing leadership), to stewardship (creating leadership succession plans, putting into place a viable financial model, hiring professional staff , creating and deploying a framework of research, feedback, and assessment, following a focused yet flexible strategy). The importance of this similar trajectory demonstrates that future communities of transformation can follow the steps of these groups to successfully evolve and navigate challenges.

  7. Communities of transformation face common challenges and must develop particular strategies to navigate them.

    A common set of challenges emerged that provides clear direction for future groups in terms of obstacles to anticipate in their work. Th ese challenges include: funding, shifting focus, community leadership too much identified with an individual leader, project-focused versus community-focused decisions, staleness, legitimacy, the dominant culture of science education, maintaining community integrity, focus on general faculty improvement versus a specific pedagogical approach, and increasing and changing demands on faculty. Th is report articulates these challenges and offers advice for navigating them.

  8. Communities of transformation rely on a specific set of avenues for expanding impact.

    In order to expand membership and impact, the communities studied took six different avenues, all of which show promise for use by future communities of transformation. We have categorized these avenues as disciplinary, institutional, sector-focused, constituent-based, national, and international approaches. Th e study identified that communities can be more successful when they expand in areas where they have some existing strengths or assets. For example, two communities studied had connections to leaders in disciplinary societies, while two others had connections to administrators to leverage for an institutional approach to expansion. Th is report also documents challenges for expansion.

  9. Future communities of transformation can draw on the sustainability model identified and developed through this study.

    Since communities of practice are typically organic organizations that can come and go, the communities of transformation engaged in the important work that was the focus of this study must have plans for sustainability. Such plans are critical to the expansion, success, and impact of communities of transformation. Th is report offers a sustainability model that includes the following elements: creating leadership succession plans, putting into place a viable financial model, hiring professional staff , creating and deploying a framework of research, feedback, and assessment, and following a focused yet flexible strategy.

  10. There are further ways that communities of transformation can extend their impact.

    The study also identified some key ways that these communities of transformation can increase their already significant impact, through working with centers for teaching and learning on campuses, helping faculty create professional learning communities on their own campuses, inviting teams from campuses to maximize impact, and working even more deeply with disciplinary societies, among other recommendations.