Opportunities and challenges developing a STEM discipline based education research alliance
by Thomas Shipley, Ph.D.
The question of how humans learn has been addressed from various perspectives, including psychology, education, and more specific learning disciplines. Research on education within STEM disciplines has been referred to collectively as discipline based education research (DBER). DBER focuses on, how individuals learn the content, social practices, and strategies of each discipline, how each of these develop over the course of disciplinary training, characterizing educational strategies that improve learning and inclusion, and developing evidence informed practices for incorporating research into formal and informal educational settings.
Research within each DBER has large proceeded independently of other DBERs. With the goal of increasing collaboration between DBER fields, researchers from the fields of math, biology, chemistry, physics, geoscience, engineering, economics, education, and psychology met in May 2017 at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to explore the potential for a STEM DBER Alliance (DBER-A). This meeting built on a 2016 meeting supported by HHMI, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Association of Public Land Grant Universities (APLU), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The workshop goals were to address three questions: “1) What are the grand challenges for DBER? 2) What organizational and communication structures will best support DBER-A? 3) How will DBER-A interact synergistically with existing organizations operating in related spaces?”
I attended this workshop as a representative of the Geoscience education research (GER) community and the Science of Learning community. The potential value of asking research questions that span disciplines offer exciting new opportunities to expand resources (such as large scale databases and tools for measuring important constructs), extend what we know about learning (identifying challenges and learning principles that span disciplines), and for researchers to extend their community. Often DBER researchers are a single individual housed within a STEM department that focuses on disciplinary practice; an alliance could support connecting researchers from different disciplines to work on common important problems.
Challenges to developing an alliance include how to form a community of practice without inducing meeting fatigue, and communicating important findings outside of one’s local research community. A critical audience for education research is educators, but changing practice at individual and institutional level is difficult. Complementary to DBER is the field of scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), which focuses on supporting instructors’ use of evidence-based and evidence-informed methods. SoTL was not a part of the meeting, however, while DBER and SoTL may have different goals they have mutually supporting goals. DBER seeks to develop theory and evidence related to teaching and learning in a discipline, and SoTL seeks to develop the effectiveness of teachers and understand how to bring evidence-informed curricula or pedagogy into practice. Many individuals work in both communities. SoTL and DBER effectively constitute a trading zone that may mutually advance theory and practice.