Gabriela Weaver and Andrea Beach

The work for Transforming Institutions began a decade ago, with the planning of the first conference subsequently leading to a volume that brought together narratives of the ongoing work of initiatives presented at that and subsequent conferences. Changes in higher education as well as in the socio-political landscape since that time have brought into sharp relief some of the underlying issues driving the work presented in that first volume. It is clearer now than ever that in order for change to take place at our institutions of higher learning, the fundamental processes of those institutions and of the higher education sector overall must be examined.

As discussed in the 2015 volume (Weaver et al., 2015), transformation efforts were, at that time, beginning to shift from classroom-based to program-based and, in some cases, to institutional efforts. Change agents recognized that a substantial body of evidence existed in support of student-centered teaching methods, which laid a foundation for transformation efforts. The work of educational transformation was becoming more rigorously theory-based, utilizing knowledge from other sectors. For example, theories of organizational change from the business sector began to be integrated into frameworks for institutional change in higher education, as can be seen in the work of Kezar (2013) and the AAU (2013). At the current time, change frameworks are increasingly expected in funding proposals and published research. They are being applied not only to institution-level change, but also to networks of institutions and academic organizations working jointly on transformation efforts. For example, the Networked Improvement Communities (NIC) framework (Bryk et al., 2011), is one way to achieve the simultaneous engagement of both leadership- and course-level actors. Networking was an important methodological proposition introduced in the previous volume, and is discussed at length in this book as critical to sustaining and institutionalizing change.

We have seen institutional change initiatives in STEM education progress, expand, and become more numerous over the last half decade. So, too, have the efforts to understand and support change. The conversation about change in higher education has become a national one and has generated coalitions to address the work in systemic ways. For example, the Bay View Alliance [BVA] (BVA, n.d.) is a network of 10 (at this time) institutions working together on STEM education institution-level projects; the Accelerating Systemic Change Network [ASCN] (ASCN, 2020) brings together those who are researching systemic change at higher education institutions with those who are making systemic change happen at their individual institutions, with the aim to accelerate change at program and institution levels, and to improve STEM education nationally; the Network of STEM Education Centers [NSEC] (NSEC, n.d.) provides resources for and supports the work of campus-based units that are often at the grassroots level of change. More recently, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM] created a standing group called the Roundtable on Systemic Change in Undergraduate STEM Education (NASEM, n.d.) intended to support ongoing exploration of the intersections among policy, research, and implementation in STEM Education. In this volume, we see the growth of the national dialogue about STEM education transformation reflected in the new organization of book, with sections titled: Theories of Change, Change across Scales, and Change Leaders. This organization was driven by the increased presence of advanced enactment of change in this volume’s chapters, as compared to five years prior, when the much of the book comprised descriptions of programs in the early stages.

The chapters in the section Theories of Change offer detailed examples of projects framed by specific theories adapted from organizational and business literature, and initiatives framed by emergent theories developed in the higher education context. Authors in this section also explore the value of applying multiple theoretical lenses to complex change problems and ask important questions: What happens to ideas in an institution? Why do some ideas gain traction and others wither? How do different change theories add interpretive value to data emerging from change initiatives? These chapters go well beyond the descriptive approach that characterized chapters in the prior volume. They describe projects that spread across all four quadrants of Henderson et al.’s (2011) change strategies, and stress the importance of context in planning and enacting change. Henderson and Stains note in their Introduction to this section that change theories do not often address context, and that its presence within all seven chapters points to nuances in change initiatives that have been under-developed but remain important for future theory application and development.

The authors within the Change across Scales section offer a series of studies that were not possible to offer in the first volume, which in itself is a testament to the rapid evolution of thinking about undergraduate STEM change—both among change makers and among funders. All of the initiatives described in the seven chapters were funded, either wholly or partially, by the National Science Foundation or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. All involve significant collaboration, whether initiatives were initially planned at a multi-institutional scale or grew to that level. That a full third of this volume is able to focus on such networked projects speaks to the very rapid success of researchers and funding agencies in thinking beyond the intra-institutional levels that characterized prior STEM education research. These chapters provide early blueprints for very large-scale change efforts that will be needed to fully realize the “new normal” that Slakey and Gobstein proposed (2015). They manifest the intentional shift that Finkelstein noted in the Introduction of this volume.

The works within the final section, Change Leaders, also address an aspect of change not explored in the prior Transforming Institutions volume. Chapters explore the power of students as leadership partners in change efforts, the shared support and accountability offered by learning community models of change, the necessary leadership roles needed to make them successful, and the key role that discipline-based educational specialists have taken within complex instructional transformation initiatives. Collectively, the chapters paint a portrait of leadership from every level needed to build sustained change over time. The mix of developing and mature initiatives offers readers multiple entry-points to considering questions of leadership across the arc of change—early development, building to scale, and institutionalization.

The works in this volume clearly demonstrate a broadening and deepening of thinking about how to implement and study transformative change in undergraduate STEM teaching and learning. The spectrum of initiatives represented across the chapters shows the dramatic growth that has occurred over the past decade. What this volume lacks, however, is representation of a diversity of contexts when we think about STEM teaching and learning outside of bricks-and-mortar, research-oriented, traditionally delivered undergraduate education. There are few comprehensive, liberal arts, or minority-serving institutions represented, no community colleges, no adult learners, no online, hybrid, or alternative schedule courses. It is impossible to talk about transformative change in undergraduate STEM education when the discussion is missing the bulk of institutions that educate our undergraduates. Furthermore, there is change happening at those institutions that offers additional and important perspectives to the national conversation on higher education transformation. Broadening the contexts and the student groups we include in our research and change-making enterprises in the next decade is critical.

A central question of the first volume of Transforming Institutions was whether the use of student-centered teaching practices could become the “new normal” in the near future, if ever. One goal we had as we began this volume was to reflect on that question and appraise the landscape along that metric. However, that is now only one of many questions we are asking as we synthesize the work of the scholars contributing to this volume. At the time of completion of this volume, near the end of 2020, our country and the globe have been through tremendous tests of resiliency, compelling deep reflection and adaptability by individuals and organizations at all levels. In some ways, the resulting shifts have been catalytic for the types of changes that education researchers and change agents have been continually pursuing prior to this time, though making only incremental progress. In other ways, however, unaddressed deficiencies and injustices of our higher education system—and society as a whole—have been amplified and brought to center stage. Foremost among these are issues of equity, ranging from access and inclusivity for traditionally underrepresented people to heightened awareness of systemic racism and the policies, practices, and structures that sustain it.

Those same policies, practices, and structures, regrettably, are inherent in this country’s system of higher education, and those of other countries with similar structures. Higher education institutions of today have emerged from a legacy of knowledge discovery and dissemination that was elitist by design and developed in an era when inequality was not questioned. Addressing the deficiencies and injustices of our system, then, requires nothing short of a full reexamination of the “ways of doing” and the “ways of being” in our institutions through a lens of equity, inclusion, and diversity. Many of the change efforts represented in this and the prior volume of Transforming Institutions have been grassroots initiatives, and have often struggled to become institutionalized. This begs the question of whether these institutional legacy structures are able to support higher education in becoming what is needed for today’s society.

It is incumbent on all of us to make changes where changes can be made, or to rebuild the structures entirely where changes would be only makeshift, palliative efforts. It is not enough to create programs that simply adorn the edifices that exist, only to have a new seismic societal shift remind us of the flaws we left in place. We argue that “structural renewal” must be at the core of our efforts to achieve the “new normal” envisioned by Slakey and Gobstein (2015). This is a time of lessons and an opportunity to apply what we are learning in meaningful ways. The editors and authors of this volume, and all of those who have contributed to the ongoing work of transforming institutions, believe that the core mission of our work is to ensure that all students can access and succeed in STEM higher education. Indeed, that the flourishing of human society depends on it. As such, we consider our work only a beginning and hope it will be a call to action for every reader.

1 References

Accelerating Systemic Change Network. (2020). Accelerating systemic change in STEM higher education. Accelerating Systemic Change Network.

Association of American Universities. (2013). Framework for systemic change in undergraduate STEM teaching and learning. Association of American Universities.

Bay View Alliance. (n.d.). Bay View Alliance.

Bryk, A., Gomez, L., & Grunow, A. (2011). Getting ideas into action: Building Networked Improvement Communities in education. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Education.

Henderson, C., Beach, A., & Finkelstein, N. (2011). Facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instructional practices: An analytic review of the literature. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(8), 952–984.

Kezar, A. (2013). How colleges change. Routledge.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (n.d.). Roundtable on systemic change in undergraduate STEM education. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Network of STEM Education Centers. (n.d.). Network of STEM education centers.

Slakey, L. & Gobstein, H. (2015). Toward a new normal. In Weaver, G. C., Burgess, W. D., Childress, A. L., & Slakey, L. L. (Eds.) Transforming Institutions: Undergraduate STEM education for the 21st century (pp. 485–496). Purdue University Press.

Weaver, G. C., Burgess, W. D., Childress, A. L., & Slakey, L. L. (Eds.) Transforming Institutions: Undergraduate STEM education for the 21st century. Purdue University Press.