Measuring Student Development

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Science  20 May 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6032, pp. 895
DOI: 10.1126/science.1207680

For the past two decades, funding organizations such as mine have supported initiatives at U.S. colleges and universities with the goal of transforming undergraduate science education. Now it is time to ask the tough questions: How effective have these efforts been? How can educators and funders build on the lessons learned? Undergraduate education is an absolutely critical enterprise. Regardless of the future profession that a student chooses, this is the time when undergraduates acquire the fundamental skills for making creative contributions to society, including the process of scientific thinking that will empower them to be more effective citizens.

The achievements over the past 20 years have identified some key practices that contribute to a successful science education program. Research experiences ensure that students truly understand what it's like to be a scientist, an impact that is reinforced through incremental achievements and longer-term success, such as publishing results. Interdisciplinary research and curricula need to be more than the sum of the individual disciplines, and making room for new ways of teaching requires doing away with the old ways. And U.S. colleges and universities can use outreach, such as professional development for early education and precollege (K-12 grades) teachers, to inspire and prepare undergraduates to become science teachers themselves.


To move to the next level of strengthening science education, more sophisticated assessments are needed of programs that attempt to improve the undergraduate science experience. Counting up participants can gauge a program's scale, but not its impact on developing scientific abilities. Selecting students based on their past achievements is relatively straightforward. But what happens after a student arrives on campus? How well do the faculty and programs enable the student to develop, and how much does that student change relative to his or her potential? Education programs must be evaluated for their ability to reach key goals. An effective program should enable students to demonstrate an understanding of the process of science, regardless of their academic discipline. Therefore, a student's ability to formulate a hypothesis, design a meaningful experiment, deal with uncertainty, critically evaluate evidence, and engage in effective discourse should be measured.

Persistence is another challenge. The minority and majority undergraduates who enter U.S. colleges and universities with similar precollege education backgrounds have similar graduation rates. But the minority students switch from science to nonscience majors at a rate more than twice that of the majority students.* Educators and funders need to understand why students leave science, and create strategies that encourage students from all backgrounds to succeed as science majors.

A few organizations seek to understand and measure which components of undergraduate science education programs are most successful. Last month, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) invited primarily undergraduate institutions to compete for up to $60 million in science education grants. With nearly 25 years of experience in supporting undergraduate science education, HHMI can now ask applicants to evaluate the impact of their programs by measuring student development rather than simply counting beings. Over the long run, we hope that this new emphasis will provide better information about what strategies succeed in developing better scientists, science teachers, and a more science-literate society. Only if institutions approach the evaluation of teaching and learning as a science—that is, by creating continuous improvement cycles through information gained from research—will they be able to thoroughly engage the creative capacities of all students and to develop the interdisciplinary scientific thinkers that the world so badly needs.

  • * G. Huang, N. Taddese, E. Walter, S. Peng. Entry and Persistence of Women and Minorities in College Science and Engineering Education (National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC, 2000).

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