Stretching boundaries and challenging comfort zones – the STEM certificate

December 15, 2017

Curriculum Teaching and Learning in STEM Disciplines provides opportunities for graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and current instructors to develop a practical understanding of educational concepts underlying high-quality communication of disciplinary knowledge, with a focus on curriculum design and implementation at the post-secondary level within the STEM disciplines.

Western Education, Western Engineering and Medical Sciences have teamed up and created a certificate in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). The goal is to develop and improve educators’ competencies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by combining the practical knowledge of the STEM professions with twenty-first century research and thinking about curriculum and teaching.

The certificate has been an eye-opening experience for fourth-year PhD candidate, Abdallah Moubayed. After completing the first course, the electrical engineering student and teaching assistant found it challenged his traditional thinking as a STEM student. Moubayed said engineers have a different outlook on teaching when compared to the Faculty of Education. He said in engineering, academia can be rigid as faculty often resist new teaching methods.

“If it’s working, why break it – why try something new,” he said.

However, Moubayed is enjoying being exposed to different ways of learning. He’s also discovering how to balance what he wants to teach his students with how the engineering faculty wants students to learn.

PhD student in Environmental Engineering Caitlin Kushnir is also a teaching assistant in the engineering faculty and she agrees the STEM certificate is pushing her comfort zone.

She said the certificate challenges students by asking, “is this the better way? How do we motivate students who are struggling?”

Director of the Faculty of Education’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Research in Curriculum as a Social Practice, Dr. Kathryn Hibbert said Western Education and Western Engineering created the certificate because education needs to play a more prominent role in preparing students for the workforce or for working in the academy.

“We try to be in touch with what employers are looking for, such as soft skills. We help them identify what their own needs are in the workplace. We also spoke to teaching assistants who hope to work in the academy and how they teach to participant groups, how to understand twenty-first century pedagogies and how to apply design thinking to curriculum development,” said Dr. Hibbert.

She added there are many ways to teach and people learn differently. However, when teachers are teaching design curriculum or strategies, the default position is to “teach as you were taught,” said Dr. Hibbert. “The certificate helps them understand their own example of learning may not be the best approach depending on the topics or students before them.”

The certificate is made up of three online courses – Designing responsive curriculum, Creating effective opportunities for learning, and Assessing learning. Moubayed and Kushnir enjoyed the “coffee conversations” – an online opportunity to discuss readings and concepts that were covered in class. Kushnir was surprised at the “free form” nature of the course.

“I didn’t expect the certificate to be so philosophical. I enjoyed it and I found it useful,” said Kushnir.

Moubayed felt the course has given him a new perspective on education. He’s been taught how to design a course and he’s met a diverse group of students from civil, environmental and chemical engineering. Student diversity has taught him that education pedagogy that works in one area may not work in another area.

“Being aware of these differences is enlightening. It’s important as we move to more interdisciplinary research that we're aware of different perspectives,” said Moubayed.

Kushnir also found different perspectives were useful because she asked her classmates for input that helped her address teaching challenges.

“It was nice to have a group of people willing to offer suggestions. It was helpful,” she said.

The STEM certificate began last year as a pilot project. Now, the program is an established online program and it covers all STEM disciplines. Starting in January, a cohort can sign up for the certificate and have the courses tailored to their needs. For example, a group of medical students can sign up and have the classes focus on medicine instead of engineering,” said Dr. Hibbert.

The Faculties of Education and Engineering are also producing a research paper on student experiences in the program. The paper will be published in 2018.

While the certificate is pushing boundaries for STEM students, Moubayed and Kushnir recommend it. Moubayed added the certificate will challenge students’ belief that the STEM method of education is the only way to teach.

“We tend to be rigid in our approaches. We tend to feel we have to get it right,” he said. “We need to loosen up a bit about that.”

For more information on the STEM certificate, click here.