STEM Course Development Guidelines
The shift to FHLE is an opportunity (and, of course, a challenge) to rethink STEM teaching and learning. While faculty can build on their past experiences, they should also be open to new approaches and working closely together to:
- Share resources and strategies;
- Prioritize learning goals and essential material;
- Consult professional societies for curricular suggestions and other resources.
Keep in mind one of the overall guiding principles in FHLE: less is often more. Focus on what matters, keep the approach simple, and communicate clearly and frequently.
This set of recommendations is designed to provide guidance for all of the STEM disciplines. It also includes some disciplinary-specific examples as appropriate.
Guiding Principles for Course Design
For multi-section courses, form a working group of tenure-track faculty, contingent faculty, and others (lab managers, graduate student instructors, etc.) with responsibility for all aspects of course oversight, including:
- Articulating course learning goals;
- Identifying critical course content;
- Choosing a common book, online support material, and online homework system;
- Developing a common syllabus;
- Setting guidelines for assessment and common standards for grading;
- As needed, integrating lab and lecture work.
For lecture/lab classes, identify what material needs to be covered in lectures and what is covered in labs. Outline this clearly for students so that they understand how best to prepare.
In science and mathematics, there is a robust set of online resources, including e-textbooks, online homework systems, textbook ancillaries, and sites such as Khan Academy and YouTube.
- Consider choosing a textbook that includes an online homework system. At their best, these systems support student learning and classroom design in the following ways:
- Students can take multiple attempts with homework problems, ideally learning from their mistakes;
- Students can get just-in-time feedback, through short videos, hints, or more detailed explanations, as they progress through the homework;
- The instructor can review comprehensive feedback about student mastery of key concepts before the class meets and can structure course instruction accordingly. This also allows the instructor to easily reach out to students who are not making progress with certain concepts;
- Look for systems that integrate with Blackboard, with student grades automatically transferred to the Grade Center, which builds transparency for students;
- Look for a system that is flexible enough so that the instructor can develop their own questions, in addition to textbook questions;
- There may be a test bank that can be used for exams. The system may also have anti-cheating support, such as a browser lockdown.
In the Biological Sciences Department, a working group met weekly for two months to plan the Introductory Biology lecture and lab course. They reviewed textbook options, reduced the overall course content by about 20%, consulted with professional societies, reviewed professional and graduate school requirements, and developed a set of online lab exercises. The group will continue meeting throughout the semester to assess the new approach, troubleshoot any issues, and plan for the following semester.
The Mathematics Department developed a plan to align teaching and learning in four multi-section courses that included faculty preparation of common asynchronous material, including video lectures and textbook readings, the design of interactive synchronous sessions emphasizing active learning; and the articulation of roles to facilitate leadership, accountability, and consistency throughout the semester. This approach emphasizes flexibility in accommodating students from different time zones and restrictions.
The Chemistry Department uses Mastering Chemistry, an online tool from the publisher Pearson that takes a learning science approach. The software emphasizes scaffolding of student learning, support of knowledge retention, and an adaptive approach to content mastery.
Some faculty in the Computer Science Department have found interactive textbooks (zyBooks and others) to be a valuable asynchronous tool. Student progress can be easily downloaded and graded.
Labs are a crucial part of STEM introductory course sequences, giving students a fundamental opportunity to put knowledge into practice and to work with the experimental part of the discipline. Students also need supervision and guidance from the lab instructor, especially when they encounter difficulties. While this atmosphere, and hands-on experience of being in a lab, are impossible to duplicate online, there are some creative approaches:
- In some disciplines, labs have three components: supplementing material in lecture, helping students understand how to perform experiments, and giving students hands-on exposure to scientific principles. Online simulations may work well for the first and third of these components and could even be developed as asynchronous modules. With this approach, make sure that you take time during synchronous sessions to discuss the lab content;
- Another approach is to prioritize lab time during synchronous meetings. An instructor could explain the lab assignment and students can work on the assignment, with the instructor available to give individual feedback. Or students can be split into breakout rooms to work together on the assignment. The instructor can drop in to gauge progress and can use private chat (or a private room) if there are particular issues;
- A lab instructor could produce videos of the experiments, so that students at least see the process, then shares the data with students for them to use for lab reports;
- Look for some online lab simulations. Some are free (PhET) and others require licenses (Labster);
- A tempting short-term solution is to postpone labs for the semester. This has a number of disadvantages:
- It separates the lab from the lecture, possibly reducing student understanding and learning;
- It may delay student degree progress;
- There is a risk of further postponement if the pandemic does not ease in the next semester.
The Chemistry Department is developing an approach to teaching laboratory courses that uses a combination of research, computational tools, and inquiry-based experiments. Students in the General Chemistry lab will have access to a set of videos (easily accessible via YouTube) that explain aspects such as experimental set up, data collection, and lab report writing. The department developed a series of hands-on experiments utilizing household chemicals and assembled basic lab kits that they mailed to students. Data from all lab sections will be pooled for students to analyze. For their Junior-level Physical Chemistry lab, the faculty identified the learning objectives most impacted in the switch to online instruction and developed pedagogical approaches to support these learning goals. In addition to using previously acquired data sets and doing fully computational experiments, students will build a Lego-based spectrometer for simple hands-on spectroscopy experiments.
Faculty in the Natural Sciences Department will use the shift to remote learning as an opportunity to bring the lab and lecture components of the introductory course sequence together, emphasizing the relationship between the experiments and the lecture material and postponing the lab technique work until the next semester.
The Biological Sciences Department plans to offer Introductory Biology labs in person. The approach included identifying which labs could be done completely online and front-loading hands-on activities early in the semester. In addition, they plan to pair students up so that each student in a pair will be in the lab each day, but not at the same time. Creating two shifts for student meetings and reducing each meeting time (by moving some material online) will allow all students to have a significant hands-on experience.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
STEM faculty often take the approach that this is not an issue in the classroom because “we are just teaching STEM.” But it is an issue, both in terms of content and the student experience. There are multiple ways to design your course to support diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Some resources include Toward Inclusive STEM Classrooms: What Personal Role Do Faculty Play? and Making Science More Equitable, Starting with 101;
- Seek out course materials that support diversity through authorship, specific material (a critical treatment of eugenics, for example), and the promotion of scientists and mathematicians who are traditionally underrepresented;
- Be aware of how your biases and experiences may influence your pedagogy and your choice of course materials and topics. Consider how microagressions in the classroom may impact the self-esteem and confidence of students. Look for opportunities to offer “microaffirmations” – small ways of showing support and inclusion – to counteract this;
- Take an “asset-based” approach to student learning. A “deficit-based” approach focuses on a student’s deficits – what they aren’t learning, what they can’t do, what mistakes they are making. An asset-based approach acknowledges the strengths, skills, and abilities that students bring to their work and encourages them to build on these when they encounter failure;
- If possible, incorporate research and mentoring into first- or second-year courses These experiences help students see STEM as creative and engaging;
- Check-in with students on a regular basis so that technology, home issues, or illnesses can be discussed before they become significant impediments to student progress. IT is providing hot spots and laptop loaners to students. In case of illness, alternative assignments and exams should be considered. You can refer undergraduate students to the success deans or class deans.
The Biological Sciences Department plans to supplement course material with additional resources that address diversity issues in Biology, since the standard textbooks typically reflect a narrow range of perspectives.
Communication is more important than ever for remote learners, especially first-year students. Clear and frequent communication from the instructor will help students stay engaged and motivated.
- Develop one communication method and stick with it for the semester. Provide a roadmap for students with “mile markers” for them to pace themselves throughout the term. Include clear information about learning goals, expectations for asynchronous and synchronous meetings, assessments, and other important course aspects;
- Many STEM faculty develop their own course websites. In that case, please do include your syllabus and essential information in the Blackboard site for your course, so that students can use this as a starting point;
- Develop a common syllabus for multi-section courses;
- Offer periodic anonymous surveys to the class to get feedback and make adjustments;
- Build regular, informal feedback loops into your synchronous sessions. For example, ask students to send you (or to post in the chat) a brief response to questions such as “Name one thing that you found most interesting” or “List one question that you still have.” See Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation for more information.
Some faculty in the Physics and Engineering Physics Department use Slack as the main communication tool with students. A key feature is that students can easily ask questions and can see questions or comments that other students have posted.
In STEM courses, it’s typical to jump right into the material on the first day of class. In the FHLE context, consider fostering experiences from the beginning that build community and camaraderie. Students won’t have the natural opportunities that come with face-to-face experiences and you will need to help them get to know each other.
- For large classes, consider building student teams of 4 – 6 students to meet regularly. In addition to building community, these students can approach the instructor as a group with questions;
- Consider group assignments as a way to help students make connections. Mix the groups up over the course of the semester so that students get to know many other students. If you use group work, take the time to explain why you are asking the students to work together. In addition to the ways in which this supports students in their learning, it also models the collaborative approach that is fundamental in STEM;
- Use breakout rooms in Zoom for community-building exercises, think-pair-share, see it/do it/teach it, and other small group activities during class time. Encourage students to use the private chat feature if they are shy about asking a question in front of the class;
- Use the Blackboard discussion board, the Piazza tool, or other tools to manage questions and answers and to encourage participation;
- Encourage students to create a GroupMe or other types of group chats to connect with each other;
- Students also need to build a relationship with their instructor. If possible, hold one-on-one meetings with students at least once during the semester.