By Published: Dec. 12, 2016

Earlier this year, University of Colorado Boulder Associate Professor Amy Palmer designed a new introductory chemistry course to address the known deficiencies of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Now, other CU Boulder scientists aim to do the same.

To create her course, Palmer partially borrowed from a curriculum developed by CU biology Professor Mike Klymkowsky and Michigan State University chemistry Professor Melanie Cooper. The curriculum is called CLUE (Chemistry, Life, the Universe and Everything), and it aims to enhance student learning in introductory science courses. 

Amy Palmer

Amy Palmer

To create her course, Palmer partially borrowed from a curriculum developed by CU biology Professor Mike Klymkowsky and Michigan State University chemistry Professor Melanie Cooper. The curriculum is called CLUE (Chemistry, Life, the Universe and Everything), and it aims to enhance student learning in introductory science courses.

The efforts of both teaching groups are raising the standards of traditional STEM instruction, the scholars say. 

“One of our core goals in creating this new course was to implement effective teaching practices to engage students as active learners and to promote a sense of identity among chemistry and biochemistry majors,” said Palmer.

At CU Boulder, the re-designed chemistry seminar is intended to prepare students for advanced work in the field, and it is called Foundations of Chemistry.  

Although the course uses components from the CLUE model, there are differences. For one, Palmer implemented a one-semester class to prime students for organic chemistry in their second semester, while the original CLUE construct spanned a full academic year.

Additionally, new student-centered activities for every Foundations of Chemistry class period were designed. CLUE also is taught in such an “active engagement style,” but with different activities.

“I was very impressed with the CLUE curriculum. It integrates discipline-based education research and research on learning and cognition,” said Palmer. “I spent quite a bit of time analyzing research on teaching and learning, and investigating other curriculum reform efforts.”

These courses are designed with one central question in mind: What is it that students need to know?

By removing some less-relevant material and using methods such as student-centered activities, educators aim for greater overall learning.

Mike Klymkowsky

Mike Klymkowsky

Klymkowsky emphasized that teaching materials should be revised after critical review. “There has been no real innovation in education since Socrates,” he said.

In that light, a key aspect of any curriculum is the instructors’ ability to evaluate curricular effectiveness. Cooper’s group has been conducting extensive comparative and longitudinal studies on the CLUE curriculum, examining student thinking as revealed in drawings and written answers to identifying those ideas and skills that have been mastered and those that have not. 

Such analyses have informed the revisions of course materials. For instance, a 2015 article in the Journal of Chemical Education reveals how misconceptions about intermolecular interactions are improved through the CLUE curriculum.

Aside from serving as a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology—or MCDB—Klymkowsky participates in the School of Education’s CU Teach program, which recruits high-achieving students for K-12 STEM teaching careers.

Klymkowsky is frustrated with the efficacy of U.S. STEM education. As a first-generation college student, he feels lucky to have found a supportive community as an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University.

But he recognizes not every student is as fortunate, saying the support he received likely helped him cope with the “inadequacy” of “poorly designed introductory courses.”

“There are plenty of obstacles for students. We shouldn’t be providing these obstacles,” Klymkowsky said. “We can ask ourselves, ‘What does it mean to know something?’ and, ‘What is it I really need to know?’”

He argues that questions like these can help inform the development of new teaching practices and remove impediments to greater student success.

He recently developed an introductory course in evolutionary and molecular biology at CU called Biofundamentals, which aims to address these issues. 

Part of ensuring that students learn what they “really need to know” might be excusing them from some introductory classes altogether.

There has been no real innovation in education since Socrates.”

MCDB majors, for instance, are required to take calculus. Klymkowsky finds this strange, given that biologists aren’t likely to use much calculus in the field. Luckily, mathematics Professor Eric Stade has developed an alternative to the standard: a course called Calculus, Systems & Modeling that approaches calculus from a more biological perspective. The course is recommended for MCDB majors.

Klymkowsky is not alone in recognizing these STEM education shortcomings. Palmer cites evidence that “strongly indicates that the traditional teacher-centered classroom is less effective at engaging students and promoting learning.”

Additionally, the National Academies have issued major reports detailing the deficiencies in STEM education. In 2005, the organization recommended that science funding be increased to increase the United States’ competitiveness globally. More recently, the National Academies concluded that the country is still losing ground.

But if challenges to student learning in STEM are recognized so widely, why aren’t more professors and stakeholders responding?

“This is really, really hard,” said Palmer. “There is no way I could have done this on my own,” said Palmer. She praises the support she received from chemistry Professor Robert Parson and research assistant Allie Hunter, who helped design the curriculum, course materials and recitations.

And perhaps it’s dedicated instructors such as these who STEM education needs. Increased funding to these areas has not produced desired results. But programs like CLUE have proven successful, highlighting the importance of supporting dedicated scientists like Palmer, Klymkowsky, Parson and Cooper. By focusing more on student learning, instructors can better help students succeed.

“With any luck, efforts by people like Amy Palmer and a host of other faculty on campus can help change that situation and make student success an important factor in determining departmental rewards,” said Klymkowsky.

For more information on CLUE, click here. To see Mike Klymkowsky’s blog on PLOS, click here.