Like-Minded People: University-Based Interdisciplinary Collaborations in STEM Teacher Preparation Programs
A need exists for impactful interdisciplinary collaborations between STEM and Education departments to build successful STEM teacher education programs. Within extant literature, few studies have examined the qualities that make STEM and Education collaborations possible for the purpose of STEM teacher preparation. The purpose of this study was to analyze the motivation, development and sustainability of collaborations between STEM and Education faculty and university supervisors to better enhance STEM teacher education programs. This study analyzes the dynamics between STEM and Education faculty and university supervisors at seven universities with Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Programs within the state of Texas. Through a qualitative multiple-case study research approach, we collected data through focus group interviews, archival information, and field notes. Our exploratory study yielded three main findings to include the following: (1) characteristics of impactful STEM-Education collaborations; (2) impact of STEM-Education collaborations; and (3) common STEM-Education collaboration constraints. Based on the findings from this study, implications for universities, institutional leaders, students, and the grant foundation are discussed.
KeywordsInterdisciplinary collaborations Faculty STEM education STEM teacher preparation Postsecondary
Historically, faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) departments have experienced a strained relationship with faculty in education departments inhibiting quality collaborations (Schwebel, 1985; Seethaler et al., 2013; Talanquer et al., 2003). Nevertheless, a growing body of research reveals that collaborations between STEM and Education departments (hereafter referred to as STEM-Education collaborations) may result in several advantages. Czworkowski and Seethaler (2013) show that STEM-Education collaborations may enhance student learning, providing quality pedagogical and content knowledge. Collins et al. (1999) find that courses developed through STEM-Education collaborations may model professional collaboration behavior and contribute to a community of learners. Talanquer et al. (2003) show that effective partnerships between STEM and Education faculty may facilitate the recruitment of STEM teachers by developing flexible and attractive routes to achieve teacher certification. In addition, collaborations between STEM and Education disciplines may develop a cohesive recruitment network by maximizing human resources for the purpose of STEM teacher recruitment (Hubbard et al., 2015).
Despite these provocative findings, few studies have examined how collaborations between STEM and Education faculty are fostered and sustained within higher education (Craig et al., 2017; Bouwma-Gearhart et al., 2014; Sack et al., 2015). In fact, Kezar and Lester (2009) contend that higher education research has focused more on external collaborations (e.g., campus-community, university-industry, etc.) rather than internal collaborations (e.g., interdisciplinary teaching and research, cross-functional teams, etc.). This gap in the literature is particularly acute for STEM-Education collaborations focused on STEM teacher preparation programs.
Among participants in the study, what are the characteristics of the collaborations among STEM and Education faculty, department administrators, and field study supervisors?
How do these interdisciplinary collaborations enhance STEM teacher preparation programs?
To address these queries, we begin by presenting our literature review and conceptual model. Next, we describe our methodology, data, and results. Finally, we discuss the implications of the results, the limitations of this study, and future research endeavors.
Five key ideas are foundational to this qualitative multiple-case study literature review: (1) defining interdisciplinary collaborations; (2) motivation to collaborate; (3) development of the collaboration; (4) sustainability of the collaboration; and (5) collaboration barriers.
Defining Interdisciplinary Collaborations
Within higher education literature, the term, collaboration, assumes several labels including, but not limited to, alliances, joint ventures, networks and, more commonly, partnerships (Amey & Brown, 2004; Eddy, 2010; Kezar & Lester, 2009). Kezar and Lester (2009) contend partnerships and collaboration “involve joint goals” (p. 7). More specifically, Eddy (2010) defines partnerships as informal or formal “organizational pairings” that occur between a postsecondary institution and an external entity (e.g., business, community agency). For Eddy (2010), partnerships and collaborations denote two different actions, with the latter referring to the collaboration between individual faculty.
The meaning of interdisciplinary is equally nuanced. As several authors note, the definition of interdisciplinary varies by context and application (Amey & Brown, 2004; Holley, 2009; Lattuca, 2003). Amey and Brown (2004) operationalize interdisciplinary to mean situations when at least two disciplines or fields interact for a specific purpose. This interpretation applies to our study given that the Noyce program seeks to incentivize an authentic collaboration between STEM and Education faculty to enhance their institutions’ STEM teacher preparation programs (NSF, 2017b). Given these subtle variations in definitions, we rely on Amey and Brown’s (2004) definition for interdisciplinary collaborations—“a group of faculty and staff from various disciplinary backgrounds (paradigms), often within a single university, organized to address a predetermined task” (p. 2).
Motivation to Collaborate
Existing literature notes that both internal and external factors may motivate faculty to collaborate within and across their institution. External factors include state mandates, corporate and business entities, foundation and government agencies such as the National Science Foundation that encourage (or require) interdisciplinary collaborations to develop (Bouwma-Gearhart & Adumat, 2011; Kezar & Lester, 2009; Seethaler et al., 2013). While external factors may incentivize interdisciplinary collaborations to form, internal factors are equally influential. Using a narrative inquiry approach, Sack et al., (2015) reveal how shared experiences and interests motivated STEM and Education faculty to form a collaboration to address problems in STEM education (Sack et al., 2015). Other internal factors inducing STEM-Education faculty collaborations involved improving teaching practices and skills and determining whether the institution values the collaboration’s mission (Bouwma-Gearhart & Adumat, 2011). Furthermore, Seethaler et al., (2013) indicate that by collaborating, STEM and Education faculty may leverage different individuals’ content expertise and maximize department resources, further encouraging the collaboration.
Development of the Collaboration
While internal and external motivations provide the impetus for individuals to collaborate, McCoy and Gardner (2012) outline key components necessary for an interdisciplinary collaboration to effectively thrive: “time, the people, the resources, the structures, and the supportive environments” (p. 44). In particular, these same authors stress the importance of having the right people engaging in interdisciplinary collaborations noting that “not everyone is suited for interdisciplinary work” (McCoy & Gardner, 2012, p. 46). Likewise, Bouwma-Gearhart and Adumat (2011) find that STEM-Education faculty collaborations benefit when collaborators bring a passion for the project. Even with the right people in place, Amey and Brown (2004) emphasize that interdisciplinary collaborations develop in stages. As several authors highlight, it also takes time for faculty from different disciplines to develop a common language (e.g., Amey & Brown, 2004; Kezar & Lester, 2009; McCoy & Gardner, 2012). Along this same vein, Sack et al. (2015) reveal trust among STEM-Education collaborators evolved through various types of meetings that occurred frequently. Kezar (2005b) also underscores the importance of interactions among collaborators and notes the opportunities these provide to establish “shared rules, norms and structures” (p. 834). In fact, Seethaler et al. (2013) recommends that nascent and sustainable STEM-Education collaborations agree on core principles of the initiative. By establishing ground rules, mutual respect also flourishes among STEM-Education collaborators (Sack et al., 2015).
Sustainability of the Collaboration
The sustainability of STEM-Education interdisciplinary collaboration hinges on several, interconnecting factors. Eddy (2010) outlines various challenges that may impact faculty collaborations including, but not limited to, time constraints, an imbalance of power dynamics and the absence of reward and recognition institutional structures. Other setbacks that may negatively influence collaborations stem from changes in leadership (Bouwma-Gearhart & Adumat, 2011; Bouwma-Gearhart et al., 2014) and overall perceptions of the teacher profession. For these reasons, Seethaler et al. (2013) state STEM-Education collaborations must demonstrate a willingness to negotiate throughout the collaboration and with different entities. Existing literature specifically outline several “ingredients” (Seethaler et al. 2013) beneficial to the sustainability of STEM-Education collaborations. Of these, the most prevalent highlights the importance that the collaboration be mutually beneficial for its members (Bouwma-Gearhart & Adumat, 2011; Amey & Brown, 2004; Seethaler et al., 2013). While mutual benefits may manifest differently for each member, it is clear that successful STEM-Education collaborations must have an environment where trust and mutual respect exist among individuals (Amey & Brown, 2004; Sack et al., 2015).
Equally as important as mutual benefits is the role of leadership within and outside the collaboration. In examining university-community college partnerships, Amey et al. (2007) label individuals critical to moving the initiative forward as champions. Champions may also serve as advocates for the partnership’s agenda and the partnership itself (Amey et al., 2007). Eddy (2010) further notes that faculty collaborators may serve in a champion role. Within STEM-Education faculty collaborations, champions emerged as faculty with broker-rich connections able to bridge discipline silos to promote institutional change (Bouwma-Gearhart et al., 2014). Talanquer et al. (2003) also outline that buy-in and support from a variety of stakeholders—department chairs, deans, and general faculty—contributes to the success of STEM-Education collaborations.
To prepare STEM educators, interdisciplinary collaborations are necessary to help develop integrative alliances and innovative approaches to areas beyond the STEM field itself (Sanders, 2009). Nonetheless, there are deeper issues that deter interdisciplinary collaborations from developing in higher education, especially among STEM and Education departments. Several studies reveal that a lack of collaboration among STEM and Education faculty partly results from inauspicious historical legacies experienced by Colleges of Education (e.g., Ravitch, 2003; Schwebel, 1985). By the turn of the twentieth Century, the high demand for teachers diluted the quality of teacher preparation programs provided by many state sanctioned “normal schools” thereby lowering their status (King, 1987; Labaree, 2008). Labaree (2008) explains this lackluster reputation followed normal schools (vis-à-vis teacher preparation programs) as they transitioned into colleges or departments within higher education institutions. Along with this unsavory perception, the teaching profession elicits a negative connotation largely influenced by current teacher salaries, job satisfaction, and job security (Watt & Richardson, 2008).
Unfavorable perceptions, however, are not the only factors limiting collaborations across different disciplines. The structural organization of contemporary universities discourages interdisciplinary collaboration (Holley, 2009; Kezar & Lester, 2009). For example, existing physical and cultural silos between academic departments may further result in clashes that deter the collaborative process (Amey & Brown, 2004; Seethaler et al., 2013). Therefore, while institutions tout the idea of collaborations between different academic departments, faculty reward structures and resource allocation also do not necessarily encourage cross-discipline collaboration (Amey and Brown, 2004). Nevertheless, despite historical and structural barriers, STEM-Education collaborations are possible given the right motivations.
To examine STEM-Education collaborations, this study employs Amey and Brown’s (2004) Interdisciplinary Collaboration Model. As part of a larger study analyzing a university-community-partnership, Amey and Brown (2004) developed their model by exclusively focusing on the interactions between a team of university faculty from diverse academic disciplines. In doing so, Amey and Brown (2004) identified several components to understand and describe how interdisciplinary collaborations evolve. The authors organized this information into three developmental stages and then along four dimensions—discipline orientation, knowledge engagement, work orientation, and leadership orientation—to illustrate behaviors and characteristics associated with each stage. We provide a brief explanation of each stage and its distinctive qualities.
Broadly understood, Stage 1 depicts a collaborative dynamic that experiences “disciplinary clashes” (Amey & Brown, 2004, p. 13). In this stage, little group cohesion exists and leadership represents a traditional, authoritarian approach. Stage 2 represents a group dynamic with greater integration that facilitates coordinated work processes (Amey & Brown, 2004). While disciplinary differences continued to plague the group, trust, respect, and ownership flourish as individuals interact regularly. Consequently, leadership shifted from a top-down approach to one demonstrating collective ownership over project tasks and responsibilities. In Stage 3, individuals evolved to reflect an authentic interdisciplinary collaboration. While collaborators remain anchored to their disciplinary orientations, Amey and Brown (2004) note that individuals acquire adaptive lenses that allow them to embrace varying perspectives when navigating group decision-making processes. This shift encourages leadership to take a more servant-like quality. By providing a lens to understand collaborations from the beginning to their present stage, the Interdisciplinary Collaboration Model offers a comprehensive approach to analyzing the collaborations while also assessing characteristics that contribute to the success of the collaboration.
The research project was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program (Track 4) grant. This study is part of a larger, three-year mixed-method project that examines Noyce outcomes in Texas.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) established the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program as a funding mechanism to increase the number of qualified science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educators. To apply for a Noyce grant, proposals must include at least one faculty member from a STEM department and at least one faculty member from an education department (NSF, 2017b). The goal of the Noyce program is to encourage talented STEM students to become K-12 educators (NSF, 2017a). To accomplish this goal, the Noyce program awards funding to participating higher education institutions allowing these institutions to “provide scholarship stipends, and programmatic support to recruit and prepare STEM majors and professionals to become K-12 teachers” (NSF, 2017a). In turn, Noyce scholarship recipients (Noyce Scholars) agree to work as science or mathematics teachers in high-need school districts for at least two years for each year of financial support (NSF, 2017a).
At the start of this project, we collaborated with eight universities to undertake our study. However, 7 four-year public institutions ultimately participated in this portion of the study. These seven institutions produced 10% of all the secondary STEM teachers in Texas (U.S. Department of Education, 2014), making them essential programs to understand from research and practice perspectives. More specifically, they included approximately 350 Noyce Scholarship participants. These public institutions represent a breadth of diversity across key characteristics including: location, student population, Carnegie classification (i.e., framework for recognizing and describing institutional diversity in U.S. higher education), and types of students ultimately served in high-needs school districts. Our participating institutions included two universities with a student population of less than ten thousand students; two with a population between ten thousand and twenty thousand; and three with a population between forty thousand and sixty thousand. Of these, 3 were located in urban areas, 2 in suburban areas, and 2 in rural areas. Additionally, four universities were designated as Hispanic-Serving Institutions, one as both Minority and Hispanic-Serving and one as Asian and Hispanic-Serving.
To initiate our exploratory study, we selected a multiple-case study design. This qualitative approach gave us the ability to examine phenomena within and across institutions (Yin, 2003) while also bolstering the generalizability of our results (Miles and Huberman, 1994). As part of this study, we utilized a semi-structured focus group interview protocol which included questions that broadly addressed topics such as collaborative partnerships, curriculum issues, and program design. Data collection took place over a 13-month period and involved one round of interviews.
We initiated our data collection by first compiling descriptive information about each institution and its respective Noyce program as well as archival program development and recruitment documents on required content, content methods, field and clinical experiences, and supplemental opportunities (e.g., summer experiences). To ensure accuracy of the information analyzed, participating universities received a copy of their Noyce campus profile and were encouraged to provide feedback.
The second stage of the data collection involved focus group interviews with affiliated Noyce program faculty and university supervisors. Focus groups provide “high-quality data in a social context where people may consider their own views in the context of the view of others” (Patton, 2002, p. 386). A focus group interview protocol was developed consisting of eleven questions (see Appendix). Noyce PIs and Co-PIs assisted the research team by soliciting Noyce faculty and university supervisors from their respective programs to participate in focus group interviews. Prior to email solicitation, our research team held an in-person meeting with the Noyce PIs and Co-PIs to discuss the structure of the research project and data collection.
All focus group interviews lasted approximately one hour and were moderated by two members from the research team. In total, there were 7 focus group interviews conducted for this study. To protect the identities of the interviewers and the study participants, we invoked use of the Chatham House Rule, which provided a collective agreement that allows participants to speak openly about views with the assurance that information will remain confidential (McAlister-Shields et al., 2015). Interviews were audio recorded and outsourced to an external transcription service.
For this study, data analysis occurred in phases through the use of several qualitative techniques occurring simultaneously with data collection. Prior to conducting the focus group interviews, we collected a “thick description” (Geertz 1973, p. 6; Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 125) from each institution’s program to better interpret and contextualize findings. Coding represented the primary method of data analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Saldaña, 2009). Coding occurred across two cycles with the first cycle of coding involving both structural and simultaneous coding. Structural coding allowed for researchers to address their research questions through a semi-structured interview while simultaneous coding augmented the multiple meanings established throughout the data (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Saldaña 2009). By using a focus-coding method (Charmaz, 2006; Saldaña, 2009), we did a comparison of the codes between institutions to create categories and themes.
Unsurprisingly, characteristics across each STEM-Education collaboration varied at each institution and revealed individual institutions were at different stages in Amey and Brown’s (2004) Interdisciplinary Collaboration Model. Despite the differences, we identified commonalities critical to the success of an institution’s Noyce and STEM teacher preparation program, which we labeled as impactful qualities of STEM-Education collaborations. We will first discuss the characteristics of impactful STEM-Education collaborations followed by how these collaborations influence STEM teacher preparation programs. Then, we will discuss common STEM-Education collaboration constraints.
Characteristics of Impactful STEM-Education Collaborations
Impactful STEM and Education collaborations were composed of individuals with common interests and motivations. As Stage 1 of Amey and Brown’s (2004) Interdisciplinary Collaboration Model points out, before the collaboration begins, individuals usually take a traditional, authoritarian approach to their goals. As discussed in the broader literature, shared goals may motivate these individuals to collaborate (Amey & Brown, 2004; Kezar & Lester, 2009). These elements were evident in our STEM-Education collaborations. During one interview, a faculty member described their motivation for joining the collaboration: “one of the things that ... attracted me in the program in the first place is that these are like-minded people that truly have the students’ interest first” [University 6]. Other participants voiced Texas’ STEM teacher retention problems describing the situation as a “revolving door” of teachers [University 3]. From these findings, we found that most of the participants had transitioned from Stage 1 to Stage 2 of the Interdisciplinary Collaboration Model (Amey & Brown, 2004) as awareness of the community’s needs encouraged them to develop a solution-based intervention in the form of the Noyce grant.
STEM faculty also cited gaps in their institution’s STEM teacher preparation program as an impetus to collaborate noting that prior to the Noyce program, “Students [were] not prepared to teach science and math, they [didn’t] know the research, they [didn’t] know the issues, the scientific reasoning, misconceptions [and] problem solving” [University 4]. Within our study, shared interests connected like-minded individuals to collaborate and address problems that impacted STEM teacher preparation. These findings correlate with existing STEM-Education collaboration literature (Collins et al., 1999; Bouwma-Gearhart & Adumat, 2011; Sack et al., 2015) that stresses the importance of common ground among members.
Impactful STEM and Education collaborations viewed themselves as a cohesive team. While our study did not focus on the particulars of each collaborations’ development process, our study revealed that effective collaborators perceived themselves as a team. As one participant stated “the most important partnership is sitting at this table” [University 6]. This ties in with Stage 2 of Amey and Brown’s (2004) Interdisciplinary Collaboration Model, where collaborators are developing their trust and respect for one another. For instance, faculty alluded that ties among them had gradually developed and strengthened, eventually blurring differences stemming from their academic disciplines. This development dynamic aligned with previous literature (Collins et al., 1999; Sack et al., 2015) that finds relationships among STEM-Education collaborators evolve and integrate through collaborative interaction and communication.
Impactful STEM and Education faculty collaborations benefit from the support of key institutional leaders and administrative agents (e.g., deans, department chairs). STEM faculty noted that STEM teacher education has garnered more positive attention in recent years from upper administration noting that “prior deans [were] not interested” in programs related to STEM teacher education but that recently there have been “more acceptances” by various administrators [University 3]. As the literature notes, administrative agents may increase recognition for STEM-Education collaborations by providing “institutional clout” (King, 1987). Moreover, several participants also noted how financial support from their institution created opportunities for their teacher programs to attract and sustain their student populations while also validating the mission of the collaboration. Specifically, this financial support came from the colleges’ deans and the provost, which provided “summer money for faculty and some graduate assistantship funding” [University 3].
Institutional recognition also helped maintain the collaboration’s momentum since faculty feel validated for their work. A faculty member from University 1 stated, “we get recognition within the university...so if we come forward with an idea people will listen and say ‘Oh, okay yeah, because we know you guys have been working together on this’ and it’s held in high esteem.” While STEM-Education collaborations did not solely hinge on the approval of senior level leaders, Kezar (2005a) notes support from senior leadership may contribute to the collaboration’s sustainability. This same author further notes how faculty deem it important that high-level administrators acknowledge, practice and reward collaborative efforts (Kezar, 2005a).
Impactful STEM and Education faculty collaborations positioned members to emerge as boundary spanners. Our data revealed how a “representation of players” [University 6] from diverse content areas fostered collaboration and reduced discipline silos to enhance their STEM teacher education programs. Collaborators indicated they leveraged their institutional networks to promote the Noyce program. Within higher education literature, individuals with the ability to bridge diverse communities and extend beyond their organizational boundaries are known as boundary spanners (Ramaley, 2014) and brokers (Bouwma-Gearhart et al., 2014) to name a few.
being in the education department and being recognized by the math department as a valuable... had been incredible ... [in] this department I'm treated as a peer which is…a good feeling because that doesn’t happen in many places [University 1].
As Joshi et al. (2009) explain, ambassadors may help persuade members outside the team to also provide support as well as resources.
Impact of STEM-Education Collaborations
STEM and Education collaborators used recruitment opportunities to help change negative perceptions and myths regarding STEM teaching careers, which resulted in buy-in for their STEM teacher preparation program. When asked what factors supported efforts to recruit students to become STEM teachers, participants consistently emphasized the importance of buy-in for the program. As reaffirmed in the literature, buy-in among various institutional agents and stakeholders is crucial to the success of STEM teacher preparation programs (Kezar, 2005a; King, 1987). Yet, a major constraint encountered by all our institutions concerned the negative perceptions regarding the teaching profession. To overcome this obstacle, STEM-Education collaborators used recruitment opportunities to enact change and encourage buy-in among students, administrators, and faculty. This was where we saw the shift from Stage 2 to Stage 3 of Amey and Brown’s (2004) Interdisciplinary Collaboration Model where the collaborators show a united front and embrace differing perspectives to figure out ways to combat negative perceptions. As King (1987) notes, “it is far easier to dislike an unknown entity than something familiar” (p. 9). For example, during freshman and transfer student orientations as well as during student meetings, faculty and university supervisors pitched the job market for STEM teachers and emphasized the altruistic qualities of the career. Promoting the program also provided an opportunity to inform colleagues about the institution’s STEM teacher program and further advocate for the teaching profession. In particular, these recruitment initiatives helped make “inroads” with STEM faculty and advisors making it more likely that these individuals will suggest STEM teacher careers as a viable and favorable option. In fact, our data shows that these “small steps” resulted in a “culture shift” [University 3] across many STEM departments, which facilitated initiatives that enhanced STEM teacher preparation programs (Collins et al., 1999). Noteworthy among these initiatives was the development and implementation of STEM teacher degree plans.
STEM and Education collaborators leveraged their institutional networks to develop STEM teacher degree plans. As boundary spanners, collaborators rely on their institutional networks to develop and implement STEM teacher degree plans, which require the buy-in of individuals beyond those in the collaboration. At one institution, STEM faculty remarked that the “degree programs...in physics and the ones... in chemistry wouldn’t have been possible without [the] education [department] being willing to create the minor” [University 3]. STEM teacher degree plans were critical to the recruitment and preparation of STEM teachers. For students, STEM teacher degree plans give them the flexibility to simultaneously pursue a STEM major as well as a teaching certificate (or in some cases an education minor). At one institution, faculty described that physics students interested in becoming teachers could pursue a physics degree that allowed them to count their science education courses as part of their physics electives [University 5]. Related research (Seethaler et al., 2013) found these streamlined pathways may spur enrollment and further encourage collaboration between STEM and Education departments. For students, these initiatives translated to less additional coursework as well as potential costs, which help make a STEM teaching career more attractive.
STEM and Education collaborations increased the number of individuals able to support students. In Amey and Brown’s (2004) Interdisciplinary Collaboration Model, they point out the importance of utilizing various perspectives in problems solving and decisions. By bringing several individuals from different disciplines, STEM-Education collaborations have more human capital at their disposal. For students, this means more individuals they may access for support. For Noyce faculty, having a group of collaborators allowed them to provide intervention at multiple stages during a Noyce Scholar’s pre-service and in-service career. One faculty member described, “all of us have our radars on all the time...and if a problem exists for a student...we contact whomever we think can help…” [University 6]. Each collaborator brought a different approach to solving a problem demonstrating that the adage “it takes a village” applied to the success of STEM teacher preparation programs. In this regard, we found that no one individual in the collaboration emerged as the champion (Amey et al., 2007; Eddy, 2010). Rather, all members worked to push their program’s initiative, especially when it came to student recruitment and retention.
Common STEM-Education Collaboration Constraints
While all of the institutions exhibited impactful practices, they also encountered challenges that influenced their collaboration. Based on Stage 2 of Amey and Brown’s (2004) Interdisciplinary Collaboration Model, there were multiple examples of constraints throughout the findings that tested the motivations, respect, and trust of the collaborations. These constraints included funding issues, communication breakdowns, persistent negative perceptions and administrative changeover.
While some institutions gained additional funding resources to sustain their STEM teacher preparation program, there were others that anticipated the end of funding within the near future. Maintaining funding streams emerged as a challenge encountered by STEM-Education collaborations. At one institution, faculty expressed dwindling financial support as a factor influencing their ability to sustain their Noyce program. A faculty member from University 7 said, “I have already turned down three students this semester…[These students] would have been great candidates but we are at end of our [funding] cycle.” The strength of these collaborations depended on their motivation and ability to secure additional grants.
Participants across institutions talked about communication breakdowns with their partners and the challenges they faced when trying to improve their practices. These communication breakdowns led to a number of frustrations as shared by University 4, “Just trying to make sure everyone gets copied on everything then [the] college of [education] would come up with some policy and we are like, ‘Ugh, we have to do this.’ So, we have to communicate to everybody.” In this case, the STEM-Education collaboration responded to challenges as a team by divvying up tasks and developing a system to keep constituents informed. Yet, more nascent STEM-Education collaborations acted in parallel thereby experiencing more communication problems (Amey & Brown, 2004). While cross-discipline tensions were expected (Collins et al., 1999), collaborations demonstrating less communication breakdowns usually met more often and had working relationship guidelines.
The process in how to respond to policy changes created a larger problem. Changes to teacher certification requirements were particularly difficult for STEM-Education collaborators to effectively resolve. For example, policy mandates concerning the minimum GPA requirements for teacher candidates were most troublesome. One institution illustrated how a GPA increase from 2.5 to 3.0 “hurt our science and math people” [University 4]. Moreover, as GPA changes occurred, there were failures in communication between STEM-Education collaborators resulting in a handful of students “caught in the middle” [University 4]. This lack of communication contributed to tensions among collaborators.
Persistent Negative Perceptions
STEM faculty, more than Education faculty, described how faculty in STEM disciplines steered students away from pursuing a teaching career. One STEM faculty member offered insight to the problem, “the message...they get more often from the biology department is you don’t want to be a teacher” [University 6]. Similarly, other participants shared that most STEM advisors did not “necessarily promote teaching” [University 5] when advising students for specific career paths. In his comparison of professional paths, Glazer (1974) argues teaching is viewed as a “minor” profession, while medicine and law are viewed as “major” professions. Perhaps for this reason, students were dissuaded from pursuing careers viewed as lower quality. While STEM-Education collaborations emphasized that “this kind of attitude seems to be diminishing” [University 3], several institutions still have challenges ahead before perceptions change and widespread buy-in exists.
Changes in administration may hinder achievements previously earned under different institutional leaders. During one interview, Noyce collaborations expressed their frustration saying “we had turnover of deans and we had turnover of [the] president, a turnover of the provost, so everybody changed” [University 4]. Along the same vein, it also presented new opportunities to push forward previously unsupported agendas. For the sustainability of their program, STEM-Education collaborators must proactively foster relationships with new administrators and advocate in favor of their STEM teacher preparation program.
Discussion and Implications
This study aimed to analyze STEM-Education collaborations to provide insights into characteristics that strengthened their impact, especially in regard to STEM teacher preparation programs. Based upon the data collected through focus groups interviews, the findings presented benefits for practice and policy. The following implications address the need for STEM-Education collaborations.
Amey and Brown’s (2004) previous study highlighted the importance of leadership as a crucial factor that determines the success of interdisciplinary collaborations. Our findings revealed that impactful STEM and Education collaborations benefitted from the support of key institutional and administrative agents (e.g., deans, department chairs). In particular, we found the sustainability of our STEM and Education collaborations advanced from the buy-in of campus leaders. Campus leaders played a crucial role in bolstering the collaboration’s initiatives by encouraging interdisciplinary work through reward structures and by providing additional resources (e.g., funding, physical space). In turn, STEM-Education collaborations had the potential to enhance the institution’s prominence. Several of the collaborations in our study, often involving departmental and college leadership, secured multiple external federal grants and, subsequently, published articles that stemmed from the outcome of these collaborative efforts. Across the U.S., public institutions continue to grapple with dwindling state funds and an ever-increasing competition for government appropriations (Amey & Brown, 2004; Kezar, 2005a). The efforts of interdisciplinary collaborations, served as an example of how conjoined leadership may improve funding, student success outcomes, research outputs, and prove crucial to meet institutional goals. Even more, collaborations of leadership such as those between STEM and Education produced additional benefits such as meeting workforce and community needs.
Leadership and the Role of Communication within the Collaboration
Our results revealed that collaborations are composed of individuals with common interests and motivations who viewed themselves as a team. By bringing a diverse set of individuals, STEM-Education collaborations became incubators for new ideas and initiatives. As one participant shared:
…being able to come up with ideas and projects … come about because of these collaborations…creating new degree plans, creating courses, those sorts of things that take a collaborative effort between the math department and urban education, largely happen because we kind of hash it out informally and then bring in other people. [University 1]
However, a lack of communication hindered the goals of the team and caused consternation among members. As a result, it was imperative that faculty make a concerted effort to develop a communication system that allows everyone to stay abreast of updates. One institution even shared the team met “like a department” [University 4] to discuss project matters. While meetings did not necessarily have to occur in person, our findings supported existing research that indicated the importance of various types of meetings that promoted continued communication and collaboration.
Implications for Students
Even as collaborators developed their interpersonal relationships, members still navigated existing discipline differences and perceptions to meet program goals. For us, the STEM teacher degree plans symbolized a larger issue of needed collaborations. Our study revealed STEM teacher degree plans were reached through negotiated agreements with each discipline’s faculty and administrative agents. As one faculty member noted, “all the [Chemistry] faculty agreed to have a different degree plan for those that want to be chemistry teachers. And we have a degree plan obviously for those who want to be researchers or industrial chemists” [University 2]. For students, STEM teacher degree plans carried both financial and time-to-degree implications. Particularly in Texas, resident undergraduates who exceed degree credit hours by a certain amount must pay non-resident tuition fees (Education Code, 1971). STEM teacher degree plans streamlined coursework thereby lessening the risk of excess credit hours and, in turn, extra fees. STEM teacher degree plans also provided students with a structured pathway with clear degree and certificate requirements. As a result, students were better able to map out their remaining coursework and work with their program advisors to troubleshoot problems that may delay graduation. Given that graduation rates are tied to accountability measures, which may impact state and federal funding (Cook & Pullaro, 2010), STEM teacher degree plans provided another way to bolster on-time student graduation.
Implications for Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program
The mission of the NSF’s Noyce program is to increase the number of qualified STEM teachers working in high-needs K-12 public schools. Yet, our study revealed the effects of this grant went beyond simply producing STEM teachers. By binding a collaboration requirement with a federal award, the Noyce program made it clear that both disciplinary entities share responsibility over the implementation of the Noyce program. With federal awards becoming more competitive, the Noyce grant provided the necessary financial incentive for STEM and Education faculty to collaborate. However, while the Noyce grant provided a broad collaboration expectation, it gave grant recipients the flexibility to adapt the Noyce program to their individual institution and student populations. This flexibility allowed for the creativity of these faculty to develop initiatives to enhance their STEM teacher preparation program. In fact, we suggest initiatives such as the development of STEM teacher degree plans and the emergences of STEM-Education change agents at institutions resulted both from the grant’s collaboration requirements and through its broad implementation parameters.
Additionally, our results showed that components of the Noyce program provided valued opportunities to institutions. First, the monetary compensation supported faculty and students providing a mutual benefit. The funding created an incentive for sustainable collaborations by shifting the financial responsibilities from the forefront and allowing for a focus to be placed solely on the implementation of the program through the collaboration of departments, faculty, and administrators. Second, the Noyce resources provided financial support to students who sought STEM teaching degrees and careers by granting students scholarships for their tuition. Overall, the individuals carrying out the Noyce programs and the collaborative efforts that resulted are the distinguishing characteristics of successful STEM education and preparation programs.
Limitations, Future Research and Future Grants
Several limitations emerged during the first phase of our exploratory research study. Guided by Onwuegbuzie and Leech’s (2007) Qualitative Legitimation Model, we outline possible threats to the internal and external validity of our study. To identify participants, we asked the PIs at each institution to identify faculty and university supervisors involved in the Noyce program. This type of criterion sampling contributed to quality assurance (Patton, 2002). Yet, we also understand that in asking primary investigators (PIs) to help us identify participants, selection bias may have impacted our study. Since the researcher serves as a research instrument, the quality and validity of the data depended on the researcher’s interview skills, experience, interpretation, and existing biases (Miles and Huberman, 1994). To minimize these inherent risks, we triangulated our data collection by way of focus group interview data, archival information, and field notes stemming from the various researchers involved in all phases of data collection. These efforts, however, did not completely eliminate potential threats to validity. In particular, we did not engage in formal member checks (i.e. respondent validation, participant validation), which Lincoln and Guba (1985) describe as the act of sharing data with participants that provided the information to ensure data credibility. While formal member checking was not employed, we did engage in informal member checking during a meeting with all participating Noyce PIs (Lincoln & Guba 1985). At this meeting, we provided a summary of findings and analysis, which provided respondents an opportunity to “give an assessment of overall adequacy” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) of the results. These limitations warrant further in-depth research to investigate the subtle collaboration dynamics unique to each participating institution and the broader impact these collaborations have on pre-service teachers’ success.
The findings from this study suggested implications related to the sustainability of STEM-Education collaborations. The current study highlighted challenges and barriers to sustainability, but did not comprehensively hone in on factors that created sustainable collaborations. Further, researchers should investigate the impact of boundary spanners in relation to institutional change. Moreover, future research should also be conducted on how state and federal policies impact STEM-Education collaborations and the sustainability of these collaborations. Lastly, future research should be conducted on organization proximity and its influence on STEM-Education Collaborations.
Our exploratory study suggested the Noyce program acted as a catalyst to better integrate existing collaborations thereby contributing to their sustainability within and, as a consequence of this particular funded program, across universities and colleges. As boundary spanners, Noyce faculty emerged as change agents at their respective institutions. Our data revealed they helped to positively change perceptions towards STEM teaching careers, which enhanced recruitment efforts. Additionally, Noyce faculty capitalized on this culture shift by spearheading the development of STEM teacher degree plans. These initiatives resulted in an increase of STEM teacher graduates as well as buy-in for the STEM teacher preparation program. As evidenced by our findings, faculty worked cohesively to advocate for academic policy changes and the development of new educational pathways which allowed for easier matriculation of STEM majors to pursue teaching certification. The shared goals of both STEM and Education faculty served as the catalyst for both the development of grant proposals and the implementation of educational initiatives that served STEM majors by addressing the curricular and certification policy gaps that only interdisciplinary administrative teams could effectively address. However, our data also showed challenges within STEM-Education collaborations created obstacles in the sustainability of these relationships. Obstacles, such as sustaining funding streams, impacted the motivation behind the collaborations. In addition, communication breakdowns and policy changes created ripples in the collaborations increasing frustrations and causing setbacks in the STEM-Education collaboration. Negative perceptions of the teaching profession also deterred students from being recruited and STEM departments from collaborating. Lastly, the changes in administrative leadership influenced the progress of students and hindered the sustainability of the STEM-Education collaborations. Despite these challenges, the success of the Noyce program depended on the strengths of STEM-Education collaborations. Since these individuals were the drivers of the Noyce program, we considered dynamics between them critical to understand, especially considering the implications these collaborations had at the institutional and student level.
Our study established the foundation for future research to examine STEM-Education collaborations. Impactful collaborations among STEM disciplines and education have the potential to improve time-to-degree completion for students, reduce recruitment barriers, and provide cross-disciplinary support for STEM pre-service teachers. These factors may enhance STEM teacher preparation programs at a time when there is a great need for STEM teachers.
This article includes findings from the following National Science Foundation Noyce Grant Programs: 1557273, 1136416, 1556983, 0934878, 1439861, 1239993, 1557405, 1240036, 1240038, 0934913, 1540769, 1136222, 1439914, 1035483, 1612380, 0833343, 0334811, 0630376, 1557155, 0833342, 1557309 and 1240083. All errors or omissions are the responsibility of the authors, not of the funding agency.
We want to thank Cathy Horn, Andrea Burridge, and Cheryl Craig for their feedback on earlier drafts.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
Dr. Paige Evans has received research grants from the National Science Foundation. Dr. Paige Evans declares that there is no conflict of interest.
We confirm that this work is original and has not been published or being considered for publication elsewhere. We also confirm that all authors have approved this manuscript for submission.
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