Liberal Education

Project Kaleidoscope 2.0: Leadership for Twenty-First-Century STEM Education

It has been over twenty years since the publication of reports calling for increased efforts to reform undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. Since then, dozens of similarly themed reports have followed, and more still are currently being written. Three questions commonly recur in these reports: (1) What are the characteristics of effective teaching and learning in STEM fields? (2) How can we motivate more students to choose careers in STEM fields? (3) What should be done to ensure that all students are given the opportunities they need to be successful in STEM fields? Many have provided recommendations for improving STEM learning environments and ensuring broader success for all students. For example, in its 1989 report, the National Advisory Group of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, asserted that a quality undergraduate education provides students access to

  • instruction that generates enthusiasm and fosters long-term learning;
  • a curriculum that is relevant, flexible, and within their capabilities;
  • a human environment that is intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive;
  • a physical environment that supports the other three dimensions.

Similarly, the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education stated in its 1996 report that “all students should have access to supportive, excellent programs in STEM, and all students should acquire literacy in these subjects by direct experience with the methods and processes of inquiry” (4). Also in 1996, the National Science Foundation issued its seminal Shaping the Future report, whose sweeping recommendations to faculty, departments, and institutions still resonate today.

While significant progress has been made—especially with regard to our understanding of how students learn (Narum 2008)—the kinds of interactive, engaging, inclusive learning environments required for attracting, retaining, and graduating more students in STEM fields are not yet widespread. In a sense, much of the low-hanging fruit in advancing STEM education has been picked, and the really hard work of comprehensive institutional transformation is what lies ahead. The work ahead is less about what to do, and more about how to do it. More specifically, we need to concentrate on how to achieve transformation on a larger scale at more institutions of every type, in every state, in every classroom, and for every student in the nation. In order to move ahead in this way, we must understand what has happened (or not happened) to date, the forces at play in the institutional and national landscape, the currently dominant mental models, and the underlying assumptions that are driving or, in many cases, impeding progress.

We now have indisputable evidence that active and collaborative strategies that engage students in their own learning, and in relevant ways, are highly successful across all disciplines (not just STEM) and, importantly, for all students, including those from groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education (Froyd 2007; Kuh 2008). And we know more about “what works” in translating this understanding to effective learning environments. As James Fairweather put it,

On balance the research suggests that the greatest gains in STEM education are likely to come from the development of strategies to encourage faculty and administrators to implement proven instructional strategies rather than to carry out additional research on these strategies. The largest gain in learning productivity in STEM will come from convincing the large majority of STEM faculty that currently teaches by lecturing to use any form of active or collaborative instruction. (2009, 26)

There are certainly more STEM classrooms today that utilize “pedagogies of engagement” than there were twenty years ago; however, these kinds of learning environments are still not as common as they should be given the overwhelming evidence of their positive outcomes. Our collective efforts must be more strategic, systemic, coordinated, and connected than they have been in the past. Project Kaleidoscope, because of its track record in highlighting and addressing issues in STEM higher education and its new partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, is uniquely situated as a national, cross-disciplinary, undergraduate STEM education organization to address these challenges.

Project Kaleidoscope 1.0

Since its founding in 1989, Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) has been pushing the frontiers of innovation in STEM pedagogy and faculty development, leadership capacity building, and network creation among its cross-disciplinary membership. In its first report, What Works: Building Natural Science Communities (1991), PKAL asserted that the most important attribute of strong undergraduate programs is a thriving “natural science” community, an environment where

  • learning is experiential and steeped in investigation from the very first courses for all students through capstone courses for students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics;
  • learning is personally meaningful for students and faculty, makes connections to other fields of inquiry, is embedded in the context of its own history and rationale, and suggests practical applications related to the experience of students;
  • learning takes place in a community where faculty are committed equally to undergraduate teaching and to their own intellectual vitality, where faculty see students as partners in learning, where students collaborate with one another and gain confidence that they can succeed, and where institutions support such communities of learners.

These principles still guide PKAL’s work today. For the past two decades, PKAL has focused on engaging and cultivating a national cohort of faculty leaders who have the training and support to implement the kinds of educational changes required to advance “what works” in STEM education. The success of several signature programs has helped create what many now recognize as the PKAL “brand.”

PKAL’s approach to educational change is embodied in Faculty for the 21st Century (F21). Starting in 1994 with initial support from the ExxonMobil Foundation, early-career faculty members, supported by their deans, were purposefully woven together to form a national network. PKAL meetings and projects brought these F21 members together with other academic, scientific, and public leaders and facilitated the exchange of knowledge, experience, and expertise needed to transform the learning environment for undergraduate students in mathematics and the various fields of science. The PKAL F21 network today includes nearly 1,300 active leaders in undergraduate STEM at more than five hundred institutions across the country. Most of these institutions have two or more members; nearly eighty institutions have five or more, and twenty-four institutions have eight or more. As active scholars and practitioners of STEM teaching and learning, F21 members are among the nation’s pedagogical pioneers, leading change at the institutional and national levels. Through the F21 network and other national initiatives focused on introductory science courses, leadership, effective pedagogy, and interdisciplinary learning, PKAL has engaged thousands of faculty members and other leaders at hundreds of colleges and universities.

Over the years, PKAL has also engaged a broad cross-section of additional STEM faculty and administrators through national projects focused on transforming the teaching and learning enterprise of the STEM disciplines. A current project funded by the W. M. Keck Foundation, for example, is focused on discerning key recommendations for creating meaningful and sustainable interdisciplinary learning environments in STEM from nearly thirty campus-based projects around the country. A final report from this project, expected in early 2011, will describe recommendations and leadership strategies, and will set the foundation for future PKAL work in the interdisciplinary realm. One clear recommendation from the project is that, in order for interdisciplinary programs to be both successful and sustained, grassroots faculty leaders must work together with the leadership at their institutions to advance agreed-upon goals for interdisciplinary learning that are established early in the process.

With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), PKAL has recently spurred the creation and evolution of regional networks focused on connecting STEM faculty members and leaders in local institutional consortia. Through biannual workshops and meetings, these networks are beginning to facilitate more extensive participation and engagement of STEM faculty and administrators in implementing more effective, learner-centered teaching strategies to improve student learning and success in STEM education. In addition to community building and sharing, the regional meetings have focused on effective pedagogy, twenty-first-century learning goals, the revision of introductory courses, calculus laboratories, STEM learning assessment, facilities planning, K-12 partnerships, community college articulation, and campus leadership development.

Some PKAL networks leverage other, already existing networks—formal associations or state college and university systems—while others have been formed wholly on their own by core groups of leaders whose local institutions and faculties have committed to participate. One such network has obtained NSF funding for its activities, and others have leveraged a variety of other funding sources to support their work. A wide range of institutional types are involved in these networks—from technical and community colleges to private liberal arts and public research institutions—and the number of institutions in each network ranges from ten to forty. The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College is a key collaborating partner in PKAL’s regional network project, hosting PKAL’s pedagogic collection website and other resources (see The impact of this regional work is impressive: over the past two years, PKAL networks have held twenty-seven meetings that engaged over 1,750 faculty members and administrators. And four new networks are now emerging in Southern California, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia/Washing­­ton, DC, as PKAL continues to expand its distributed community with members drawn from institutions new to PKAL.

For the past fifteen years, PKAL has held summer leadership institutes, primarily for early and mid-career faculty—mostly those in the F21 network. Over 150 STEM faculty members have attended these weeklong retreats designed to help faculty members think more deeply about advancing a STEM education project on their campuses—from developmental math courses and undergraduate research programs to multi-section, learner-centered science courses. Participation in the institutes also helps emerging leaders better understand how to achieve the right focus and balance in their careers, how to function within their institutional contexts as well as the national system of STEM higher education, and how to lead institutional change projects. Participants leave with a new sense of their place in the institution, a plan for action to achieve their goals, new skills that will help them succeed, and a lasting connection to a larger network dedicated to a shared vision of effective STEM education. The PKAL summer leadership institutes will be expanded in the coming years to reach beyond the F21 network, and their scope will be widened to include department chairs and other formal campus leaders in STEM.

Finally, PKAL has over the years built close working relationships with several scientific professional societies and other educational associations. And PKAL has often acted as information broker, connector, and convenor for deep work in STEM education with additional stakeholders.

Project Kaleidoscope 2.0

In January 2010, PKAL formally joined forces with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in an integrated partnership to advance and amplify the work of both organizations with respect to transforming undergraduate STEM learning, teaching, and leadership. As PKAL formulates its next-generation agenda within the context of its new partnership with AAC&U, we are consulting a wide range of constituent groups. This effort began at AAC&U’s annual meeting in January 2010 with an invitational forum during which over one hundred college and university presidents provided feedback regarding the current challenges that should drive the PKAL-AAC&U STEM partnership, including

  • how to assess STEM learning;
  • how to help more students succeed in introductory science and mathematics courses;
  • how to create more robust community college partnerships and articulation;
  • how to scale up and sustain learner-centered pedagogical innovations;
  • how to create more authentic research experiences throughout the curriculum;
  • how to think more deeply about science in the context of civic responsibilities;
  • how to enhance the recruitment and retention of traditionally underrepresented populations;
  • how to build more interdisciplinary programs focused on real world problems.

Ultimately, the big question is, how can we attain a critical mass of change agents and reform projects? In other words, how can we get to the tipping point? As Jay Labov of the National Research Council’s Center for Education has observed, we’re not there yet.

Are we close to the tipping point after all of this time and effort? Not yet. There are still too many faculty who continue to present science to today’s students in much the same way that it was presented decades ago. Science assessments still tend to emphasize (and thus reinforce) low levels of conceptual understanding by students. Equally importantly, too many current faculty continue to know little or nothing about the emerging evidence and consensus around effective practices in undergraduate science education. Too few future faculty (i.e., graduate students and postdocs) are being introduced to the literature on human learning and cognition or given meaningful experiences with what should be one of the most important components of their future scientific careers, so

the cycle is perpetuated. At the institutional level, much remains to be done through policy levers to encourage high quality,
effective teaching. (Labov 2009, 5)

It is clear that a strategic focus will be required if we are to make the necessary gains. Thus, in July 2010, PKAL’s new advisory board began work on a new strategic plan and reasserted the goal of focusing on both students and their learning environments.

PKAL’s primary influence over the past twenty years has been on STEM faculty members, and faculty will continue to be the central focus of PKAL activities. But an increasing emphasis will be placed on working with institutional leaders and external stakeholders in an attempt to achieve a more systemic and sustained impact on the transformation of STEM higher education. This new emphasis is depicted in figure 1, where the size of the circles indicates the potential influence of each group. PKAL will continue to be a distributed network, acting nationally as a connector within communities of faculty at the local level as well as extending across and into the other spheres.

Figure 1. PKAL's Spheres of Engagement

Figure 1. PKAL's Spheres of Engagement

Drawing on AAC&U’s expertise in diversity and inclusive excellence, PKAL will seek to advance national programs that focus on the recruitment, retention, and success of STEM students from groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education. PKAL’s programmatic work at the national level will also focus in the next few years on advancing interdisciplinary STEM learning and integrative learning environments that emphasize real-world issues within global contexts. PKAL will return to its early focus on introductory courses—for majors and nonmajors—with a renewed focus on systematic implementation of effective pedagogy as well as on the integration and assessment of student and program learning goals.

The new partnership between PKAL and AAC&U will greatly benefit both communities. Science and mathematics are central to liberal education in the twenty-first century. AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative emphasizes the importance of mathematics and the sciences, as well as their application through technology and engineering. Through the LEAP initiative, AAC&U has articulated essential learning outcomes that are focused on preparing all students to engage competently and confidently with this century’s global challenges (see fig. 2). An understanding of science—including how the process of science works as well as the benefits and limitations of science—is central to knowledge of the physical and natural world, the first LEAP essential learning outcome. The complex challenges facing our society in this century—especially challenges related to energy, climate change, and global food and health—will require interdisciplinary, integrated solutions from a new generation of scientists, engineers, agriculturalists, nurses, teachers, and citizens equipped with the tools to grapple with the social, civic, political, and scientific facets of these problems. This is reflected in a recent survey sponsored by AAC&U, which demonstrated that employers want colleges to place more emphasis on learning in science and technology, ethical decision making, and applied knowledge in real-world settings (Hart Research Associates 2010).

Figure 2. The Essential Learning Outcomes

Beginning in school, and continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for twenty-first-century challenges by gaining:

Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World

  • Through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts

Focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring

Intellectual and Practical Skills, including

  • Inquiry and analysis
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Written and oral communication
  • Quantitative literacy
  • Information literacy
  • Teamwork and problem solving

Practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance

Personal and Social Responsibility, including

  • Civic knowledge and engagement—local and global
  • Intercultural knowledge and competence
  • Ethical reasoning and action
  • Foundations and skills for lifelong learning

Anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges

Integrative Learning, including

  • Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies

Demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems

Reprinted from Association of American Colleges and Universities, College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007), 12. This listing was developed through a multiyear dialogue with hundreds of colleges and universities about needed goals for student learning; analysis of a long series of recommendations and reports from the business community; and analysis of the accreditation requirements for engineering, business, nursing, and teacher education. For more information, please visit

With AAC&U as an active partner, PKAL now has even greater potential to expand the number of faculty, administrators, and institutions involved in its programs and networks. PKAL is committed to working within existing and new AAC&U programs on general education and assessment, global learning, public health, and inclusive excellence in order to deepen the attention paid to STEM learning. In addition to helping to shape AAC&U conferences and institutes with respect to STEM, PKAL will co-host with AAC&U a new annual conference series entitled “Engaged STEM Learning,” beginning in March 2011.

If we are successful, more college and university students will experience STEM learning environments where they are actively engaged in learning relevant content with their peers and faculty members as partners in learning. We’ll see more students from diverse backgrounds entering and succeeding in STEM courses and programs at all levels and types of institutions. Students will no longer view general education courses in science and mathematics with dread or as burdensome requirements to “get out of the way”; instead, students will anticipate these courses with interest because they are more engaging and relevant to their experience. Reaching this vision will require a coordinated, two-pronged approach involving (1) continued faculty development to promote student-centered, interactive learning environments, and (2) focused, high-level leadership support to maintain, scale up, and sustain effective programmatic efforts at the departmental, institutional, and system levels. And institutional efforts must be aligned and connected to national efforts.


Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education. 1996. From Analysis to Action: Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Fairweather, James. 2009. “Linking Evidence and Promising Practices in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Undergraduate Education.” Status Report, National Academies National Research Council Board of Science Education, Washington, DC,

Froyd, Jeffrey E. 2007. “Evidence for the Efficacy of Student-active Learning Pedagogies.” Project Kaleidoscope, Washington, DC,

Hart Research Associates. 2010. Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn; A Survey among Employers Conducted on Behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC: Hart Research Associates.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Labov, Jay. 2009. “Tipping Points vs. Rising Tides: Reflections on Changes in Undergraduate Education During the Past Decade.” Working paper, Project Kaleidoscope, Washington, DC.

Narum, Jeanne. 2008. “Transforming Undergraduate Programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Looking Back and Looking Ahead.” Liberal Education 94 (2): 12–19.

National Advisory Group of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. 1989. An Exploration of the Nature and Quality of Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics and Engineering: A Report of the National Advisory Group of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. New Haven, CT: Sigma Xi,
The Scientific Research Society.

Project Kaleidoscope. 1991. What Works: Building Natural Science Communities. Washington, DC: Project Kaleidoscope,

Susan Elrod is executive director of Project Kaleidoscope

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