Penn to Implement AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative

The University of Pennsylvania has been named a project site for the Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, a multiyear, multimillion dollar project that aims to improve the quality of education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Developed by the Association of American Universities in 2011, the project called for proposals from member universities, looking for those best able to demonstrate the effectiveness of evidence-based teaching practices in these disciplines.

The AAU initiative received a three-year, $4.7 million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust in October which has enabled the association to develop the initiative framework and provide $500,000 to each of eight project sites.

Leveraging its Open Learning Initiative and its Center for Teaching and Learning, Penn was named one of these sites and will implement its proposal during the next three years. 

“Vice Provost Andy Binns and I are pleased and proud that Penn will be part of this important initiative,” Provost Vincent Price said. “It recognizes the leadership of our outstanding faculty in both STEM education and open learning and the ways in which these two areas are working together synergistically to support our educational mission. We look forward to the enthusiastic participation of the Penn community in the years ahead.” 

Dennis DeTurck, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Beth Winkelstein, associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, will lead the project at Penn.

At the project’s core is the proliferation of online courses, particularly the new massively open MOOCs. Notable among these classes is “Calculus: Single Variable,” taught by Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Robert Ghrist. The series of animated lectures has attracted tens of thousands of students and has been recommended for credit by the American Council on Education. 

Using Ghrist’s animated lecture materials as a model, Penn will implement a series of “gateway” courses that include varied levels of active learning that will enable undergraduates to directly engage in the STEM disciplines and better prepare them for advanced study.

“By converting lectures to a digital format,” DeTurck said, “we can open up class time for more interactive, engaging teaching methods that have been shown to be particularly effective for these disciplines.” 

The new “blended” courses will be taught in mathematics, physics, chemistry and bioengineering. Approximately 30 faculty members are already engaged with introducing active learning pedagogy in their classes at Penn.   

“We are very pleased and excited about this opportunity,” Winkelstein said. “In particular, it is great to have such a high level of involvement from so many of our faculty already in this area and envision that intensifying over the life of the project. That’s a really exciting part about this proposal; the faculty interest and dedication will undoubtedly benefit our students in the preparation to enter and succeed in STEM fields.”

Penn will also develop support systems for this project in a range of areas, including expertise in creating new media course materials, finding appropriate physical facilities for blended classes and, critically, implementing assessment metrics that can be analyzed and distributed beyond the University.

To this end, Penn will also participate in the AAU STEM network, which will enable faculty and administrators at AAU institutions to share best practices and promote sustainable change in undergraduate STEM teaching and learning.

“We have reached an exciting milestone in our initiative,” said AAU President Hunter Rawlings. “With the strong support provided by the Helmsley Trust, these eight project sites will each begin — or in some cases continue — to institutionalize evidence-based teaching in STEM fields.  These changes will make teaching and learning far more interactive and participatory, and we hope will enhance overall student learning in STEM fields and reduce the number of students who choose to drop out of these majors.”

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The Association of American Universities is an association of 60 U.S. and two Canadian research universities organized to develop and implement effective national and institutional policies supporting research and scholarship, graduate and professional education, undergraduate education, and public service in research universities.

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting effective nonprofits in a variety of selected areas. Since 2008, when the Trust began its active grant making, it has committed more than $900 million to a wide range of charitable organizations. Through its National Education Program, the Trust views education as a lever to advance both American economic competitiveness and individual social mobility.  In K-12, the Trust focuses on ensuring all students graduate high school prepared for college or careers by supporting teacher effectiveness and the implementation of high academic standards. In postsecondary education, the Trust is primarily interested in increasing the number of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates who can participate in high growth sectors of the economy.  The Trust also focuses on policy levers that improve postsecondary completion, particularly for underrepresented populations. For more information, please visit

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