Noah Finkelstein

This volume of Transforming Institutions follows from and builds on its predecessor of five years ago (Weaver et al., 2015). The original volume specified a charge to our communities to create a “new normal” where expectations and behaviors in higher education courses would enact student-centered, inclusive, and evidence-based practices. Decades of scholarship from at least three diverse communities of research and practice—STEM/discipline-based education researchers, faculty development researchers, and higher education studies—have come to similar conclusions. Collectively, we know which practices support student success. We know how to support and develop faculty to enact these practices. We know about the complex structures that shape our practices within our colleges and universities and how these intersect within and beyond our campuses. And, instead of sitting in isolation, these communities have begun to engage in dialog, focusing on promoting this new normal by working at a systems level, linking the complex and often isolated elements of our educational enterprise.

The needs, promises and challenges of higher education are well outlined in the original volume and, if anything, have become more acute over the last five years. Higher education is among the most valuable forms of investment for individuals in their own lives and for societies in their collective welfare. A college degree is associated with a higher quality, healthier, more lucrative, and more civically engaged life. Institutions of higher education are mechanisms for a society to invest in its own future—building on inclusive democratic ideals, creating essential new forms of knowledge and associated technologies, enhancing capacities of communities, and seeding economic prosperity for states and countries.

In parallel with such promise, the documented pressures of finances, public will, technologies, and equity and inclusion for our institutions of higher education have grown in recent years in the United States. Finances remain a major shaper of the landscape. Continued state disinvestment in our public systems, operational challenges and costs across all sectors, and the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that there will be a contraction and consolidation in the number of higher education providers. In parallel, the neoliberal framing of higher education as a private opportunity versus a public good continues to commodify and limit the goals of an undergraduate degree. This framing simultaneously shifts the burden and costs of education to the individual from its historic support by the state, and only captures a fraction of the value and purposes of higher education. As noted in the prior volume (Slakey & Gobstein, 2015), motivators for and financial impacts of transformations are largely decoupled; new models must attend to the shifting financial structures and political landscape of higher education. Technologies continue to serve as a double-edged sword—in many cases enhancing the quality and practices of higher education (supporting personalized learning, enabling more effective in-person meetings, and reaching students otherwise excluded from our educational system) while in other cases raising serious concerns (exacerbating inequities, reducing individualized support, depersonalizing the educational experience). For example, technologies have not always lived up to the touted promises of higher quality, lower cost, and more accessible forms of education. MOOCs have not replaced our classes (or in the instances where they have, they recapitulate the lower quality educational practices of stand-and-deliver lecture), and the early 2020 academic moves to online/remote education were met with dissatisfaction from students and teachers alike. These moves to online environments often disproportionally disadvantage first-generation, low-income, Black, Latinx, indigenous, and others from under-represented populations in STEM fields and higher education. As we sit in times of dramatic change and potential for a more socially just and equitable society, our classrooms remain key portals for change. In the last five years, there has been increased attention to building diversity, equity, and inclusion into our educational culture– leading with inclusive practices that then support student-engagement, rather than vice versa.

While many of the themes of challenge and opportunity from the original volume remain, it is important to acknowledge the significant strides we have made and the longer arc of history that we are a part of. The modern dramatic growth in higher education can be traced to post-World War II investments—including the GI Bill and the founding of the National Science Foundation. Decades later, the 1980s saw a shift to science for all from previous goals to support the best and brightest. In the early 2000s, we saw the emergence of STEM (following the short-lived SMET acronym) to emphasize economic and workforce needs, which remains dominant in today’s public discourse around the value of higher education. As noted in the prior volume, the 2010s (and 2012 in particular) were a critical time in the STEM enterprise—2012 and surrounding years saw key initiatives and reports from the White House (President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology, 2012), the National Academies (National Research Council, 2012) and professional organizations (the Association of American Universities [AAU]’s STEM Education Initiative [AAU, n.d.], and Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities [APLU]’s evolving efforts in STEM education and the Network of STEM Education Centers [APLU, n.d.]). Of course, it is worth noting the many antecedents to these initiatives including: AACU/PKAL (American Association of Colleges & Universities, n.d.), Project 2061 (American Association for the Advancement of Science, n.d.), and others.

Prior to the 2010s, higher educational change efforts focused largely on individual innovations and development of individuals’ capacities. This essential work created a breadth of tools and approaches for building more effective and inclusive practices. It also came with the presupposition that disseminating the results from these educational innovations would lead to sustained, systemic change. But as we have discovered, they have not. Over the last decade or so, there has been a significant broadening of the landscape of higher educational innovation, particularly in STEM. In addition to continuing to develop models of quality practices and curricula, there is a greater emphasis on the human elements of change, institutional context and culture, bringing research into practice, and systems thinking. Such shifts can be observed in the evolution of funding lines, and nowhere is that clearer than within one of the leading drivers of STEM education transformation, the National Science Foundation (NSF). In the mid-1980s to 1990s, the NSF Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement (ILI) program focused on new tools for educational practice (as microcomputers were developing promise educationally). It evolved into the broader Course Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement program (CCLI). Combined, these programs provided decades of work to ensure effective tools and practices. However, they focused on dissemination of good ideas as a theory of change and scaling. As such, scaling and sustaining of these innovations were limited. Subsequent initiatives, Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES), the short-lived Widening Implementation & Demonstration of Evidence Based Reforms (WIDER), and the now-coalesced Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) calls for proposed work have evolved to consider and require more robust models of change, sustainability, and scaling. Theories of change are now expected in order to obtain funding; those proposing innovations need to provide plausible models for change and how the particular efforts sit within their larger contexts.

While there is an observable narrative arc in approaches to improving undergraduate (STEM) education, such an arc is the product of intentional work and focus—of change leaders, disciplinary societies, professional organizations and funders. The NSF and many others (e.g., Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Sloan, and the Helmsley Trust) have been intentional about shaping the direction of research and programmatic efforts through the language of their calls. These have helped move from impacts at the individual course or department level to systems change, and have required that researchers and change agents make explicit their theories of change. Funders, as well as professional and disciplinary societies are also broadening our view of what the focus of change ought to be, for example to be more equitable and inclusive, and to consider new modalities of education. A great indication of this shift to a systems and holistic view is the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine’s convening, the Imagining the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education Symposium, scheduled for Fall 2020.

As higher education shifts due to the pressures of finances, public will, technologies and diversity, inclusion and equity, a systems approach—one that recognizes the complex elements and wide range of actors (including our students)—is necessary. This volume presents theories, practices, and models to support such an approach. The volume is designed to be a practical guide for those engaging in change. It is a snapshot (though not exhaustive) of key initiatives at various stages of maturity in the current era. It provides an onramp for those seeking to engage in institutional transformation. It provides a wealth of data and case studies for those engaged in advancing our theories of change and institutional transformation in higher evaluation. As mature projects adapt to the changing landscape of higher education and grow into different stages of change, we provide resources and examples to consider. For funders and policy makers, this volume demonstrates what can happen, what might happen, and areas for influence—such as supporting systemic change and connecting practical interventions to theoretical bases for transformation.

This volume is composed of three parts: Theories of Change, Change Across Scales, and Change Leaders/Leadership. Across these three sections, the volume contains a mix of case-studies, models, and analysis of programs. While not exhaustive of the space of institutional change, these three lenses (theories, scales, and leaders), provide key perspectives for understanding and effecting any change initiative that seeks to advance undergraduate (STEM) education. In the last volume of this series (Weaver et al., 2015), there were explicit calls for more attention to theories of change; since then, and as noted, funders have been more explicit about requiring efforts to draw from theories of change. The first section provides seven chapters that explore a span of approaches to and utilities of theories of change. With descriptive studies and examples from both theory and practice, authors provide case studies for change, identify key themes that run across theories, and call for new and multiple theories of change.

In the second section, Change Across Scales, the chapters all have a foundation related to networks and networking as an essential approach. The studies vary in intentionality, scale, and drivers of these networks, suggesting the importance of attending to the wide and interacting facets of the enterprise of undergraduate education. Studies span scales from faculty development, to clusters of departments, to institutions, to national networks. In parallel, the intentionality of these networks varies from the implicit, to the opportunistic, to planned and constructed. Related to scale and form of intentionality, these chapters explore a span of drivers and motivators for change initiatives. Drivers range from centers and campus, to professional organizations, to funders. Each scale, form of intentionality and driver provides benefits and constraints in attending to institutional change, perhaps suggesting that a span of these approaches may be particularly helpful.

While this volume focuses on systems for change, change is engaged by people. The third section, Change Leaders/Leadership, explores the roles of individuals and institutions in leading change. The collection of chapters considers the wide array of actors who promote change—individual instructors, specialized embedded experts, department heads, deans, campus leaders and, importantly, students. The examples present collaborative relationships, grassroots development, and top-down approaches. Among these studies, we capture a picture of institutional change across scales from individual classrooms to campuses to consortia of organizations. Each example documents the key actors and associated models for change that promote a collective vision for sustainable, scalable, student-centered, evidence-based inclusive practices in higher education.

In reading these chapters, which review current theories, models, and case studies of transformational change, readers may consider the next steps and issues facing our higher education institutions. How might our institutions seek to employ more inclusive and equitable practices systemically, building on current work of Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses (n.d.), SEA-Change (n.d.), NSF INCLUDES efforts such as Inclusive Graduate Education Network (n.d.) and the Aspire Alliance (n.d.), and many others who are studying and promoting more inclusive, equitable and diverse environments? How can we navigate the new models of online and remote educational practice that are being developed, promoted, and tested in the COVID era? Given the current emphases of national funding structures (e.g. that focus on convergence, quantum information, artificial intelligence, big data, and internationalization), how do our higher education institutions promote these capacities and at the same time ensure inclusive and ethical approaches?


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (n.d.). Project 2061. AAAS.

American Association of Colleges & Universities. (n.d.). Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL). American Association of Colleges & Universities.

Association of American Universities. (n.d.). Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative. Association of American Universities.

Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities. (n.d.). Projects & initiatives: STEM education. Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities.

Aspire Alliance. (n.d.). Aspire: The national alliance for inclusive & diverse STEM faculty. Aspire Alliance.

Inclusive Graduate Education Network. (n.d.). The Inclusive Graduate Education Network (IGEN). IGEN.

National Research Council. (2012). Discipline-based education research: Understanding and improving learning in undergraduate science and engineering. (S.R. Singer, N.R. Nielsen, & H.A. Schweingruber, Eds.). The National Academies Press.

President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology. (2012). Engage to excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses. (2020). SEISMIC overview.

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

SEA Change. (n.d.). See change with STEMM Equity Achievement. American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Weaver, G. C., Burgess, W. D., Childress, A. L., & Slakey, L. (Eds.). (2015). Transforming institutions: Undergraduate STEM education for the 21st century. Purdue University Press.