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Active Learning Science Courses May Improve Student Retention in STEM

Standard laboratory courses in which students carry out classical experiments to recreate established results did not effectively engage STEM students

Undergraduate STEM studentsUndergraduate students work at microscopes in a UW–Madison medical microbiology laboratory class.Photo credit: Jeff Miller, University of Wisconsin-MadisonMadison, Wis.—Having undergraduate students take part in scientific discovery may be a viable way to keep students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), according to a growing body of research by science educators and education researchers. While student-directed research courses show promise in keeping students engaged and improving student retention, scaling up these curricula to serve more students presents unique obstacles. Undergraduate STEM educators who teach these courses, along with education researchers and education policymakers discussed their successes and challenges at a 2015 convocation organized by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. On June 21, Jay Labov, PhD, of the National Academies, and Cathy Middlecamp, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a presenter at the convocation, presented highlights at the American Physiological Society’s Institute on Teaching and Learning Workshop in Madison, Wis.

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The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology wrote in a report in February 2012 that standard laboratory courses in which students carry out classical experiments to recreate established results did not effectively engage STEM students. Instead, the report recommended that STEM education could be improved by replacing laboratory courses with discovery-based experiences in which students designed and conducted research that could discover new knowledge and contribute to the scientific field while learning about the subject area and the nature of the scientific process. In response to the report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine organized the “Integrating Discovery-Based Research into the Undergraduate Curriculum” meeting to explore and identify the opportunities, challenges and realities of implementing discovery-based courses.

Labov and Middlecamp discussed:

  • Emerging best practices for a successful discovery-based research course,
  • Approaches and challenges to making the course available to the entire student body,
  • Ways to ensure access and equitability for all students, and
  • Challenges to evaluating the effectiveness of a program.