Ten Years of Preparing Future Faculty through STEM Teaching Courses

When I’m asked about the difference between faculty work and teaching center work, I’ll often say that faculty are often working on two or three big projects at a time, where teaching center staff are typically juggling a lot more smaller projects. That’s generally true, but sometimes we teaching center people take on big projects, too. That’s what I did back in 2013 when I signed on as a co-principal investigator on a project funded by the National Science Foundation titled “MOOC-Supported Learning Communities for Future STEM Faculty: Multiple Paths to Advance Evidence-Based Teaching Across the Nation.”

There’s a lot in that title, and there was a lot involved in the project. We designed and produced two free online courses to help current and future STEM educators develop and enhance their teaching skills. Then we offered those courses every year starting in the fall of 2014, and they’re still running! The first course, “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching,” is available on edX and kicked off another session last month. The second course, “Advancing Learning through Evidence-Based STEM Teaching,” should be running again in the spring.

There are two things about these courses that distinguish them from the typical “MOOCs” (massive open online courses) of 2013 as well as the typical free, online courses of 2023. One is that they were produced by faculty, staff, grad students, and postdocs from half a dozen universities. Most such courses are single-instructor or at least single-institution, but ours involved coordination across multiple campuses, both in the design and facilitation. This coordination wasn’t easy, as I detailed in a 2014 blog post, but I think the quality of the courses is much higher for having so many cooks in the kitchen.

The other distinguishing feature is what we called “MOOC-centered learning communities,” or MCLCs. We knew that course participants, whether they were faculty or grad students or postdocs, would benefit more from the experience if they could meet up in person to discuss and share and build on what they learned in the online components of the course. So we invited the creation of local learning communities who would meet regularly during the run of the course, and we supported these communities with a robust facilitator guide with ideas for lesson plans for these in-person meet-ups. I wrote about our MCLC structure back in 2014, and I’m proud to say that it has been a very successful part of the courses.

[Update 11/1/23: My colleague Sandra Laursen pointed out that since 2020, many of the MCLCs have met on Zoom instead of in-person. She and I agree that it’s the synchronous element of these meetings that is important, not whether they met on-site or online.]

What made both of those distinguishing features possible is the fact that the project emerged from and was supported by the CIRTL Network. The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) is an association of research universities committed to “excellence in STEM undergraduate education through development of a national faculty committed to implementing and advancing evidence-based teaching practices for diverse learners.” Most undergraduate STEM students in the United States are taught by instructors who obtain their PhDs at a couple of hundred research universities. The big idea behind CIRTL is that if those research universities can prepare their PhD students to teach effectively, the downstream impact on STEM education will be immense.

The CIRTL Network was founded in 2006, with my former institution Vanderbilt University as one of the founding members. The network developed a variety of programmatic activities to support its goal of preparing future STEM faculty, and in 2013, at the height of “MOOC mania,” CIRTL’s director Bob Mathieu reached out to me to see if I would be interested in joining a National Science Foundation grant proposal to create a couple of MOOCs. The idea was to take what we had learned across the CIRTL Network about STEM education and about preparing future STEM faculty and scale it up, offering it to future STEM faculty outside the network, as well as anyone else who was interested in the topic. I had been actively involved in CIRTL and in supporting the development of MOOCs at Vanderbilt, so I said yes.

Bennett, Rique, Lauren, Robin, and me at a team meeting in Nashville long ago

Looking back now, ten years later, I’m so glad I said yes to Bob. The two courses been incredibly successful in spreading the adoption of evidence-based STEM teaching practices among thousands of educators around the world. Seriously, getting recognized from the courses by a grad students at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi was a little surreal. Not only that, however, I had the chance to collaborate with some remarkable people through this project. I don’t know if the full list has ever been pulled together (although there’s a good portion of it on the course website), but I want to call out a few folks here.

There’s Bob Mathieu, of course, who catalyzed the project and pulled the team together. There’s Bennett Goldberg and Rique Campa, our faculty PIs, who steered the ship through calm seas and surprising storms. There’s Kitch Barnicle and Robin Greenler, our CIRTL Network all-stars, who brought deep insight at every step of the way. There’s the Vanderbilt postdocs, Noah Green and Lauren Campbell, who got so much stuff done. Through Zoom meetings and in-person retreats and late night course building, these folks became colleagues and then friends. I am honored to know them and to have worked on such an important project with them.

Key figure from our new article on outcomes of the CIRTL Network STEM teaching courses

Why am I sharing all this about the project today on the blog? Well, it’s been ten years since the project started and I’m feeling sentimental. But also because just last week we published a long-overdue paper about the project and its success! I believe we started writing “Preparing Future STEM Faculty through Flexible Professional Development” back in 2019 (I know there was a pre-COVID writing retreat in Chicago), and I’m very excited to have it available open access on PLOS ONE. Congratulations to the whole team on this landmark publication! I hope it is well-read and well-cited.

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