STEM education at UIC garners $2.9M National Science Foundation grant

The University of Illinois Chicago has received a five-year, $2.9 million grant through a National Science Foundation program aimed at enhancing the quality of undergraduate STEM education at Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

Led by the Learning Sciences Research Institute at UIC, the award will fund a new initiative to investigate barriers to student success in science, technology, engineering and math degree programs and develop new curriculum and teaching innovations that promote student engagement and retention in related undergraduate courses.

The project will feature a collaboration of up to 70 faculty representing 11 departments based in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering. The faculty will work with the UIC’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement; Student Affairs; and the Center for the Advancement of Teaching Excellence.

UIC is one of only 16 HSIs that have R1 designation — indicating a top-tier doctoral university with very high research activity — in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. More than 9,400 of the university’s 22,279 undergraduates identify as Hispanic. These features make UIC both an ideal and a critical institution for a venture of this scope, according to Mike Stieff, co-director of the institute and the project’s principal investigator.

“UIC is one of the few institutions selected to receive an award of this size to reimagine the STEM learning experience for undergraduates. The dedication of UIC’s faculty to improve the educational outcomes of our students is commendable, and we believe this award will offer a roadmap for other institutions to address inequities in STEM education, particularly at Hispanic-Serving Institutions,” said Stieff, who also is professor of chemistry. “The award demonstrates the potential of UIC to be a national leader in undergraduate STEM education.”

The project will employ a Departmental Action Team model, developed by researchers at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, to empower UIC faculty teams to analyze institutional data to identify when and why students choose to leave STEM majors at UIC and to implement strategies for better supporting those students who are thinking about switching majors.

“UIC instructors will be the driving force for building inclusive STEM learning environments in which all students have equitable opportunities to succeed,” said Erin O’Leary, co-principal investigator and executive director of CATE.

The project will establish a certificate credential in inclusive teaching with professional development resources that will be disseminated to faculty across the nation interested in strategies fostering students’ sense of belonging, promoting their academic success in STEM classrooms and supporting their timely degree completion in STEM.

“There is an underlying assumption by instructors that the objectivity of science is implicitly translated into the classroom, but evidence shows this is not the case,” said Miquel Gonzalez-Meler, co-principal investigator and professor of biological sciences. “We are very glad that STEM departments are ready to evaluate barriers to students and instructors and come up with improvements that they can implement.”

The new funding marks UIC’s second recent award from the National Science Foundation in support of enhancing STEM-related education for undergraduate students. Announced in August, a five-year, $1.9 million grant to the chemistry department is backing an initiative that will feature evidence-based research of teaching and learning practices, course and curriculum revisions, and faculty development in undergraduate chemistry offerings. The project also will incorporate current research and societal problems to improve how courses prepare students to apply their knowledge to contemporary issues.

Joining Stieff, O’Leary and Gonzalez-Meler on the UIC project team for the latest grant are Carmen Lilley, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering; Sue Farruggia, assistant vice chancellor for assessment and planning; and Charu Thakral, associate vice provost for diversity, equity and engagement.

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