STEMTech Highlights: Innovation in STEM Education

Overheard at 2011 STEMTECH 2011: “Technology doesn’t have to be scary - just innovative enough to make a change in how learners learn.”

At the League for Innovation’s 2011 STEMTech Conference in Indianapolis, I attended workshops on innovations currently being used to enhance the teaching and learning of college STEM courses. As a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, events like STEMtech provide me with an opportunity to assess the latest innovations in the college completion community. This blog highlights the ways educators are succeeding with innovation in education.

24/7 Support, on a Shoestring

Jim Hiett from Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee discussed their pilot use of SmarThinking, a web-based software that offers student 24/7 access to an online tutor in multiple courses, yielding significant boosts in overall student performance. At another session, Christina Amato and Liz Burns from Sinclair Community College (SCC) in Dayton demonstrated SinclairOnline, a “360 degree student services tool” that allows instructors and students (and, in some instances, counselors or administrators) to co-monitor student progress throughout the college experience. Created on what Amato and Burns described as a “shoestring budget,” SinclairOnline follows students’ path from admissions, to financial aid and academic advising milestones, through registration and academic/personal resource identification, and onto community building activities.Students and their assigned counselors are provided email alerts at each potential roadblock on the road to college completion.

Scrum in the classroom

David Dalsveen, an IT programming instructor from Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, spoke on a project management framework called “Scrum,” which fosters innovation in a rather non-technical way. A highly collaborative, iterative approach to software development, Scrum emphasizes self-organization under the hands-off leadership of the “Scrum master” (instructor) and allows students to work in small groups that then organize and direct themselves. Students take ownership of their assignments and work together to determine how each part of assignments will be completed and submitted. The Scrum methodology allows collaboration between the “product owner,” a student stakeholder who links the team’s product to the stakeholders, and student teams who are responsible for delivering the “product.” This iterative process engages students, and leaders emerge, according to Dalsveen. The process of implementing Scrum was non-technical, but demonstrated a sophisticated method of managing IT developers – a “teach-by-doing” innovation – and provided training in a set of skills valuable to his Information Systems students.

One Classroom at a Time

At these sessions, all presenters identified a need to improve the college experience for students and looked to practical methods of innovation to make the change. Each of the sessions’ findings aligned with the idea, empirically supported in studies by Chen, Lambert, and Guidry (2010), and Robinson & Hullinger (2008), that use of Web-based learning technology and collaborative learning methods can be effective in reaching students “where they are” and fostering students’ interest and engagement. While some of the innovations implemented were wide-reaching and often available to whole departments or campuses, all allowed for enhancements in student-student, instructor-student, and often staff-or administrator-student interactions. Further, all were touted as being created by campus staff (SinclairOnline was programmed “in-house”) at minimal cost (in Dalsveen’s case, for free).

The use of innovative strategies – high- or low-tech – can yield positive learner outcomes and boost student engagement, particularly in STEM fields. These innovations need not be costly, highly technical, or offered campus-wide in order to be effective. As the findings presented in the sessions I attended demonstrated, they often can happen one classroom at a time. 


[This blog post is also available on Completion Matters.]