Disconnections Between Research and Practice in STEM Education

June 13, 2018

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By Ahlam Lee

This post is the fifth in a series on campus climate and STEM success. ACE is partnering with the National Center for Institutional Diversity at University of Michigan on the series.

In pursuit of the national goal of broadening participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, a wide range of public and private funding agencies have supported promising research proposals to increase underrepresented students’ participation. Owing to this support, a number of scholarly articles addressing barriers to diversity, inclusion, and equality in STEM learning environments have been published since the enactment of the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act of 1980. However, it remains unclear the extent to which the content of scholarly articles published over the past two decades in education and social sciences (ESS) disciplines has been fully discussed with higher education faculty and administrators in the STEM fields.

An overarching goal of STEM education research in ESS fields is to identify how to improve STEM learning environments through the lenses of education and social science. To make this work most effectively, this research needs to be shared with individuals directly involved in teaching or managing STEM courses.

To what extent does communication for STEM education occur between ESS and STEM fields?       

Academic or professional conferences typically serve as a communication channel among scholars and practitioners. Figures 1–2 show the presenters, authors, and discussants for the past five years, by discipline, at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting, a large-scale conference that is well known in ESS fields, and the Material Research Society (MRS) Meeting, a cutting-edge annual conference in the STEM fields.

Over the past five years at the AERA Annual Meeting, a considerable number of conference papers have addressed various issues surrounding underrepresented students in the STEM fields. However, 94 percent of participants addressing STEM education issues at AERA came from non-STEM fields. Due to data showing that most AERA presenters, authors, or discussants are affiliated with ESS fields, it can be presumed that audience members who are attending these presentations on STEM education are also not directly involved in teaching or managing STEM courses—meaning research findings on underrepresented students in STEM fields are less likely to be delivered directly to faculty in these fields.

A similar pattern was found in the MRS archive of presentation topics related to STEM education. Few (about 11 percent) participants in ESS fields addressed STEM education issues from a learning environment perspective, while most topics presented by STEM faculty or scientists focused on STEM content knowledge from a pedagogical perspective. It is important to note that MRS has a very small-scale session for STEM education. Among approximately 30,000 participants at MRS Meetings over the past five years, merely 476 (1.59 percent) presented STEM education issues.





The proportion of disciplines for participants at these conferences shows the disconnection between research and practice in STEM education. Some may argue that the archive data from only two conferences may not generalize such a disconnection. However, as noted earlier, these are large-scale and prestigious conferences where many scholars and practitioners in either ESS or STEM fields attend and present their work. Thus, conference exhibits and presentations could influence the quality of STEM education.

What’s causing the disconnection between research and practice in STEM education?

The lack of communication between those who study and those who teach STEM fields hinders each discipline from seeing the reality of STEM learning environments. Faculty who teach STEM courses often face pedagogical barriers to fully implementing inclusive learning environments. Likewise, administrators in STEM departments involved in managing budgets encounter systematic barriers to promoting supportive learning environments for all students. This means that faculty and administrators will encounter their own barriers to supporting STEM classrooms. To comprehensively understand the barriers to cultivating an inclusive STEM learning environment, researchers in both the ESS and STEM fields need to better integrate and share their work. A few recommendations to get started:

1. See STEM Learning Environments Through Multiple Lenses

ESS faculty need to see STEM learning environments beyond the eyes of a researcher, and through the eyes of a teacher. By taking on some sort of limited role within STEM classrooms, ESS faculty could gain a deeper understanding of underrepresented students’ backgrounds, challenges, and learning processes. For example, ESS faculty may be able to teach a math remediation course or serve as a teaching assistant in a minority serving community college during summer sessions. Alternatively, ESS faculty could observe how teachers facilitate the STEM classroom and listen to the teachers’ challenges and issues in teaching STEM subjects.

STEM faculty’s student outreach activities, such as spending extra time teaching and mentoring underrepresented students, should be highly valued and specifically connected to their career advancement. Such cross-disciplinary experiences of both ESS and STEM faculty could motivate them to meet and discuss STEM education issues at conferences, among other connections. These mutual efforts between ESS and STEM faculty could more comprehensively serve the academic needs of underrepresented students, the pedagogical needs of STEM faculty, and the systematic needs of postsecondary administrators in STEM fields.

2. Put Rhetoric into Practice to Promote Diversity

When public or private funding agencies decide to award research proposals, they should take the dissemination plan into greater consideration. Specifically, they could ask how active STEM education researchers in ESS fields intend to disseminate research findings to STEM disciplines, making the connection between research and practice.

3. Promote Diversity in STEM as a National Imperative

Without question, STEM classrooms that manifest an inclusive learning environment can reduce the number of marginalized or isolated students and, ultimately, increase the number of STEM bachelor’s degree recipients. Research shows STEM professionals with at least a bachelor’s degree are increasingly in demand for U.S. economic competitiveness and growth. Thus, cultivating an inclusive STEM learning environment is not only a philosophical but also a practical agenda for all stakeholders.

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