The National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year grant of nearly $600K to a project directed by Adrianna Kezar titled, “Achieving Scale for STEM Reform: Studying and Enhancing Undergraduate STEM Networks.”
For the past 20 years, countless reports have been issued calling for innovation and reform of undergraduate education to improve student learning and success. Evidence suggests that current approaches (such as funding individual faculty innovations) are ineffective (Fairweather, 2009). Instead, networking efforts have emerged as critical to creating innovation in higher education. Yet, we know very little about networks beyond that they are linked to facilitating change. The proposed project will examine and compare 4 undergraduate STEM reform networks within three organizations that have different designs but with a common purpose (undergraduate STEM reform) in order to understand how the networks can be most effectively designed to spread innovations among network members and ultimately on the campuses where they are employed. The three research questions examined are:
- How do network members and network leaders perceive undergraduate STEM network design shape the ability to achieve goals?
- What are the perceived benefits of participation in a network related to change for the individual network members and their campus?
- How do networks form and how are they sustained in ways that help them achieve their goals?
The four networks chosen are: Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL); SENCER; BioQUEST, and POGIL. The literature used to frame the study is drawn from social network analysis and communities of practice. In order to address these research questions, a mixed-methods study has been designed using:
- A survey of participants within the networks; and,
- Interviews with network leaders.
Most studies of network outcomes and design have utilized survey methodology, asking participants about influences on their behavior. This approach has been used in thousands of studies and proved an extremely accurate and valid approach for understanding adoption of new practices by individuals and the impact of social networks (Rogers, 2003). Formation and sustaining of the networks will be studied through qualitative methods (interviews of 125 network leaders). This same approach has been used with communities of practice and is the established approach for understanding these issues.
This research will be significant to both undergraduate STEM reform as well as the literature on networks. In terms of undergraduate STEM reform, it is clear that new strategies are needed to disseminate innovations and achieve more widespread change. Networks have emerged as one of the critical ways to achieve that broad spread of innovation. NSF is increasingly funding networks but without knowledge about best practices for network development or research about network design that can help achieve desired goals. The study would provide information to inform the STEM community in terms of better network development as well as help NSF direct their funding priorities. Second, in terms of the literature on social networks, this study would provide needed information about created or non-organic networks and their ability to foster innovation and change. In addition, it will provide missing data about structuring networks to best support meeting their objectives and goals.