My written comments for the #STEMFuturesHigherEd Symposium (hosted by NASEM)

I was recently asked to be a part of the “Challenging our strategies and expectations: What students learn, why, and howpanel on Friday, November 13th, 2020 at the Imagining the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education symposium hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and co-hosted/funded by the National Science Foundation.

I met several awesome folks along the way, including Suzanne Weekes, who is the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Amitava ‘Babi’ Mitra, Executive Director, New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sakereh Carter, PhD Student in Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health at the University of Maryland; Lynn Andrea Stein, Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science at Olin College and an organizing committee member for the symposium; and Monique Umphrey, President at Houston Community College Northeast and also an organizing committee member for the symposium.

The questions the moderators (Lynn and Monique) posed are in bold italics, my answers are under each question.

Please provide a quick summary of your perspective, including your thoughts on the most important goal of undergraduate STEM education in 2040.

Thank you to the moderators and the organizing committee for inviting me to this panel today. It is truly an honor to be a part of this transformative symposium.

My name is Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh (@RissaChem on Twitter) and I teach chemistry and statistics at CNM and am a Ph.D. student in Learning Sciences at UNM.

I believe in centering the humanity of students in any goal regarding STEM education. For me, this is an issue of social justice. We can center student humanity in STEM education by requiring two things: 1. the elimination of racism, misogyny, colonization and colonialism, homophobia and transphobia, and ableism amongst all STEM students, faculty, and administrators and 2. the treatment of all students with respect, compassion, and in a way that honors their lived experience.

So how do we accomplish a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive – a more socially just – STEM undergraduate education?

First, we need to eliminate the use of the banking model in content delivery in STEM education and radically change class assessment and evaluation, incorporating strategies like open project- or problem-based assessment and ungrading. Freire’s banking model assumes we deposit knowledge into our students as if they are bank accounts. As learning and cognitive scientists, we know knowledge is actively created and recreated by each student within their own learning process. Allowing our students to have an active role in their course evaluation, at least through a conversation with the instructor, is absolutely critical. We MUST employ innovative solutions like ungrading to enable students to recognize their own agency and power within their learning development in STEM. Until we change the conversation on how we assign grades, treating our students as humans will ALWAYS be an afterthought. We cannot continue to teach as if the learning journey is ours and ours alone.

Second, we need to challenge all blind and unthought-ful and unthought-through use of Educational Technology (known as #EdTech), including the predatory use of anti-plagiarism software, the LMS, & AI exam proctoring software. Third, we need to integrate digital and information literacy into each of our course curriculums and promote open access and open science so that ALL of our students can resource themselves appropriately, now and in the future. And, finally, we need to require #HigherEd STEM faculty to take classes in pedagogy, DEI, and instructional design so that they can successfully implement innovative and socially just STEM education techniques within their own classrooms. 

Putting aside the pragmatic, what aspirationally do you want to be true of STEM education in 2040? What would the impact be on science and society?

I would like to see an acknowledgement of student swirling instead of clear transfer mechanisms. Our students move between the community college and university without time gaps, often taking classes from both institutions within the same semester, and this needs to be acknowledged on a national level. I would like to elevate our excellent STEM students, often who are students of color, to national internships and programs despite their criminal record. They have already served their time and are looking for a fresh start, and we should celebrate their renewed commitment to their education. I’d like to embolden all new science undergraduates to become STEM communicators, using social media platforms to communicate science in new and innovative ways. And, as I said before, I would like a renewed commitment to open science and open access so that ALL STEM students, not just those from elite universities, can access and learn about the current scientific research.

How can we expand who we include as STEM students and STEM professionals? What approaches might better engage students that today might not consider STEM education and careers?

I believe by incorporating pedagogical, mentoring, and research strategies that center our collective humanity through a lens of social justice, we might entice those students who have typically been oppressed by STEM education to reinvest in their engagement and success. 


The first question was answered in full. The last two questions changed quite a lot, so I just tried to use some of the pieces within these answers as I could.

This symposium also led to a lot of tweets, most of which were written in the build-up to the symposium:

With one notable exception that was written once we were done:

And the symposium continues next Thursday for a reflection and retrospection kind of day. All in all, the symposium was really nicely put together and I was honored to be a part of it.

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