Volume V: Then, Now & In the Next Decade

Lessons Learned II: Common Problems, Challenges, and Opportunities Facing STEM Leaders

This series of postings on Lessons Learned from the PKAL NSF-funded Leadership Initiative (LI) was introduced with a template for the PKAL Planning Process, that reflects a distillation of experiences on PKAL-active campuses involved in a major change initiative (transforming program or spaces). One lens through which that template was developed was research on how people learn, particularly insights about how to build effective collaborating, problem-solving teams.

Problem-Driven Teams
For undergraduates, this could involve designing a problem-driven curriculum which begins by presenting students with an authentic (real world) messy problem they are to “solve” as a team by the end of the semester, guiding them to understand what they must come to know and be able to do toward that end. Addressing the real-world problems, challenges and opportunities facing STEM leaders involves a similar process, with one significant difference: that of their self-definition of the problem.

Defining the Problem
There has to be an underlying and communal sense of why business as usual is no long acceptable, why something different—at the level of an individual course, department or program or at the institutional level—would serve student learning more creatively, efficiently, and productively, given what they understand about their students and about the world beyond the campus. There has to be an understanding—at the level of individual courses, departments, programs, and/or at the institutional level— about drivers for change, coupled with an emerging vision of a more desirable future.

Calling the Question
One lesson learned from the PKAL LI experience was the power of “calling the question,” which may be another way to describe the process through which a leadership team takes responsibility for:

  • articulating and communicating the sense of urgency in ways that are immediately relevant [authentic] for the larger community and for individuals within the community
  • defining the problem as narrowly as possible in ways that can be communicated to—and that lead to concrete, creative action by—the larger community and for individuals within the community
  • achieving the desired response to the problem, challenge or opportunity in ways that can be documented to serve the community, and student learning, over the long-term
  • connecting the process of change to a larger vision.

We highlight here a further “question called” by an institution involved in the larger PKAL LI community. In this case, these were questions called by a small group of community college faculty in Chicago. Their question was about how to prepare their students to move with ease through research-rich learning environments at all stages of their academic career, and then hopefully into graduate school.The result of their questioning was an NSF-funded project, STEM Engines.
STEM Engines: NSF Undergraduate Research Collaborative

Assembling Leadership Teams
A common barrier to institutional transformation is the difficulty of assembling a leadership team taking responsibility for understanding what needs to be accomplished and for making certain that the community works creatively, efficiently and effectively toward a common vision. The emerging PKAL Planning Process, in many ways, mirrors the pedagogical processes by which faculty shape collaborating, problem-solving teams of undergraduates in classrooms and/or research labs. For example, as described in an HHMI publication, leading and managing a research lab team requires:

  • Choice—people who want to be there, have appropriate responsibilities, be involved in discussions about strategies and be listened to.
  • Competence—people who have the skills to do the work that is expected of them.
  • Purpose—people who understand the importance of their role in the enterprise.
  • Recognition—people who are given feedback (continuous), their work recognized and celebrated.
  • Comfort—people who enjoy the task and look forward to continuing engagement with colleagues.
  • Progress—people who know that progress is being made (small goals met) against an agreed upon schedule and process.
  • Enthusiasm—people who are able to communicate their enthusiasm and vision for the work that is being done beyond the team.

Such requirements, and some practical advice, are also addressed in the PKAL archive of resources on planning spaces for undergraduate STEM communities— Guidelines for Collaboration. This advice will inform efforts of academic planners, no matter the problem, challenge or opportunity they are addressing.