The National Science Foundation has awarded PennWest California $1,228,857 for a learning community among its science faculty.

The three-year project, titled "Research-based Professional Development for Science Faculty and Its Impact on Student Learning," is under the direction of Dr. Peter Cormas, of the Department of Education; Dr. Louise Nicholson ​of the Department of Biology, Dr. Kyle Fredrick of the Department of Geosciences; and Dr. Min Li of the Department of Chemistry. All teach on California’s campus.

The grant will be used to implement a type of professional development known as a learning community, determine how this community relates to student learning, and contribute best practices to extend that framework toother STEM departments and higher education institutions.

The project seeks to not only create literate science students, but also to determine how it is able to do so.

“This project will take a scientific approach to examine whether learning communities – in this case, groups of faculty with a shared interest in science education – can effect change in student learning of science and, more broadly, in scientific literacy,” Nicholson said. “Learning communities have been shown to be an effective means of professional development in the K-12 setting, and this project applies the same concept to science faculty at Cal.” 

“We are rigorously examining whether these learning communities affect science education and if so, how does change occur: we are analyzing data at every level, from both faculty participants and from students in the courses they teach,” Nicholson added.

A few years ago, science faculty – including Cormas, Fredrick, Nicholson and Dr. Gregg Gould – began to meet to discuss their common passion, to improve scientific literacy among students. (Li joined the group upon Gould’s retirement.)

“As we started designing the program, we realized that we had issues finding studies that showed that learning communities changed one’s teaching, thereby, increasing student learning in the classroom.  In other words, folks who had used learning communities did not often test their students to see if participation in learning communities helped their students improve their learning of science,” Cormas said.

They collaborated to submit their best research to Bioscience, a top biology journal.

“By getting accepted, we understood that experts thought our design was a good one that could be tested,” Cormas said.

“It is uncommon for a university like PennWest to get an NSF grant because we are a teaching-centric university.  In other words, faculty spend a lot more time teaching and working with students than doing research. Most NSF grants go to large research university like Penn State University, Harvard University, and the University of Texas,” Cormas said.

Cormas said the grant is one of the largest Improving Undergraduate STEM Education grants that NSF has funded. The dollar amount reflects a large number of faculty participants who will receive a stipend, as well as funds for conference travel to present their findings to science faculty from other universities.

The project also will partner with RAND Corp. – one of the largest U.S. policy and evaluation think tanks – to evaluate the project. 

The award started Aug. 1. The group hopes to complete the planning and preparation phase in fall 2022, and begin the first learning community in spring 2023. The group has until 2025 to complete the project with data analysis and a final report.

The science faculty plan to publish findings after the project ends and take this project to other PennWest campuses and all other State System universities.

The National Science Foundation supports research, innovation, and discovery that provides the foundation for economic growth in this country. By advancing the frontiers of science and engineering, our nation can develop the knowledge and cutting-edge technologies needed to address the challenges we face today and will face in the future.