Students + Campus

$2.4 million grant will help UCLA to make undergrad STEM courses more interactive, more effective

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Life sciences students
Erin Sanders/UCLA

Some of the grant funding will make available online lectures by UCLA faculty for introductory biology courses.

A new four-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation will help UCLA redesign some undergraduate courses to make them more interactive and more interdisciplinary.

The multipronged initiative, which is already underway and under the auspices of UCLA’s division of life sciences, could transform key courses for thousands of UCLA undergraduates. It is part of a campus-wide goal for all science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses to implement teaching methods that have been proven in peer-reviewed studies to help motivate and engage students.

The projects should help students in the STEM fields achieve a deeper level of learning and a richer classroom experience, said Blaire Van Valkenburgh, UCLA’s associate dean of life sciences, who heads the initiative.

One project focuses on the life sciences core curriculum, which comprises four introductory biology courses. The division will train faculty to create highly structured online assignments, lectures and quizzes. Van Valkenburgh said the approach should allow more time during classes for instructors to interact with students and engage them in active learning, problem-solving and quantitative reasoning.

In addition, the division will implement an Inquiry-based Learning Math–Biology Initiative, which comprises mathematics and statistics courses that incorporate concepts from biology and computational fields. Collaborative learning workshops, offered through the existing Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences, or PEERS, will complement the new math courses and provide significant support to keep students from leaving the STEM fields.

A third project will infuse classes with more practical information about STEM-related careers and internships, providing students with clearer information about their future career options. The initiative’s leadership is already working with campus partners to recruit UCLA alumni to speak with students about their scientific knowledge and their own careers.

UCLA also will devote some of the grant funding to recording and making available online lectures by distinguished UCLA faculty for all four introductory biology courses, creating web-based tools to assess how well students are learning, and posting online case studies and practice problems. Van Valkenburgh said faculty will be encouraged to incorporate more active learning and student-centered teaching. Faculty in the division are already planning to track the effectiveness of incorporating these innovative approaches on student learning and retention in STEM fields.

Van Valkenburgh, who also is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said that the initiative should help motivate more students to explore careers in diverse and emerging STEM fields, and expand the number of students who pursue STEM degrees and vocations.

Co-principal investigators, along with Van Valkenburgh, are Stephen Smale, professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics; Frank Laski, professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, and chair of the Life Sciences Core Curriculum; Erin Sanders, director of UCLA’s Center for Education Innovation in Life Sciences and adjunct assistant professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics; and Kevin Eagan, assistant professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and interim director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.

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