Conferences & Events

Cottrell Scholar Conference

19th-Annual Conference (2013)

19th-annual Cottrell Scholars Conference

Research and the Transformation of Science Education

The 19th-annual Cottrell Scholars Conference featured a rich mix of communication and collaboration as top teacher-scholars from some of America’s leading research institutions came together July 10-12 in Tucson, Ariz.

The general theme of the keynote speeches and subsequent discussions centered around transforming education in the physical sciences based on research findings about how students learn.

RCSA Interim President Jack Pladziewicz told the 60-plus attendees that Cottrell Scholars today, and since 1994, have been chosen because of their promise for both excellent teaching and superior research.

“The program was founded on the belief that there are faculty in America’s research universities so bright, so talented and so committed to the teacher-scholar model that they can do both frontier-breaking research and be leaders in their universities for teaching innovation and best practices for engaging students.”

Among the points made by keynote speakers:

Noah Finkelstein, physics professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, urged his fellow scientists to engage deeply as scholars in education from their disciplinary contexts.

He discussed his research examining several of the critical scales of focus in the learning process, adding that he is developing a new theoretical line of inquiry through experimental work on student reasoning in physics at the individual, course and department scales. Finkelstein also presented examples of course transformations at the introductory to advanced level in physics, as well as research on how subtle faculty choices determine the success of course transformations.

Cottrell Scholar Andrew Ellington, the Fraser Professor of Biochemistry in the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology at the University of Texas at Austin, warned conferees that the role of the professoriate is increasingly irrelevant.

“As a whole we are too expensive as educational labor, and our ability to recoup our value by other mechanisms, such as research, is becoming more limited,” he said.

Ellington discussed his institution’s Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), which he helped create, he said, for the purely selfish goal of finding the very best undergraduate students to contribute to his research group. The FRI has since been scaled up to include thousands of students doing real-world research at UT Austin and the program has become an institutional mainstay.

He added that he now wants to “reach right back into the eighth grade” to ensure that “I personally have a pipeline that helps some student that I don’t even know up to the point that they graduate well beyond the capabilities of my current postdocs. “

Ellington suggested the relatively independent Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology he created may provide a model for university-based research scientists to survive the coming changes in academia.

Susan Singer, Laurence McKinley Gould Professor in Biology and Cognitive Science at Carleton College and the newly appointed director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, predicted the White House will launch an undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiative this fall.

Citing numerous reports on the subject and noting that 14 different federal agencies have programs relating to STEM education, Singer said that academia generally is “doing a really terrible job in the first two years of college when it comes to STEM education.”

Singer also discussed the findings of the National Research Council’s report, Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, and concluded, “What we don’t need to do any more of is ask: Do students learn more when engaged in active learning?” The answer, she stressed, is clearly yes.

Another keynote speaker, Candace Thille, a leading authority on combining learning science with open educational delivery, took time off from her move from Carnegie Mellon University to a position at Stanford to discuss leveraging technology to advance learning and research.

Her discussion ranged from Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to Massively Open Learning and Instructional Environments for Research (MOLIER). Thille said it’s important to keep in mind that no matter what form instruction takes, learning is a complex process.

“Students are always learning,” she said. “The question is, are they learning what you want them to learn?” And she emphasized, “We want students to develop more than just a bag of tricks. We want them to synthesize all that they learn.” This can be accomplished, she argued, among other methods, by providing much more context in chemistry problems.

The ultimate road block to improving STEM education, she noted, is that “we know what works, but we can’t get faculty to do it.”

The Cottrell Scholars Conference was planned by the members of the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative, which is composed of roughly 250 teacher-scholars at 115 American research universities. This year’s program chairs were Andrew Feig, chemistry, Wayne State University; Mats Selen, physics, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Silvia Ronco, program director, RCSA.

Conference participants who are Cottrell Scholars were asked to develop a “take-away project,” either alone or with a small group of colleagues, to implement in their own department, college, university or community. “The goal of the meeting is the definition and articulation of these projects and the formulation of a plan for how to garner buy-in from colleagues and/or university administrators,” the program chairs wrote.

RCSA Program Director Silvia Ronco says the take-away sessions proved productive: “At the end of the meeting 28 take-away proposals were submitted for evaluation, describing both individual and team projects. Time will tell which ones will be funded.”

2013 - New Cottrell Scholars
Cottrell Scholars are selected by a peer-review process focused on their passion as well as their practical and scientific proposals for teaching and research. New Cottrell Scholars honored at the conference included:

Theodor Agapie, chemistry and chemical engineering, California Institute of Technology; Gordana Dukovic, chemistry and biochemistry, University of Colorado, Boulder; Henriette Elvang, physics, University of Michigan; Tobias Golling, physics, Yale University; Danilo Marchesini, physics and astronomy, Tufts University; Ognjen Š. Miljanic, chemistry, University of Houston; Eric J. Schelter, chemistry, University of Pennsylvania; Zachary D. Schultz, chemistry and biochemistry,  University of Notre Dame; Jorge Torres, chemistry and biochemistry, University of California Los Angeles; Anton Vorontsov,  physics, Montana State University; Donald A. Watson, chemistry and biochemistry, University of Delaware; Andrew A. West, astronomy, Boston University; and Arthur Winter, chemistry, Iowa State University.