decisions in their personal and professional lives. Choosing healthcare for one’s children, buying a car, voting about land-use regulations, or retrofitting one’s house or business to be more earthquake-resistant are but a few of the decisions that today’s undergraduates may face. Their decisions on these and other issues will be based, in part, on their confidence in the methods of science and engineering and their understanding of the findings of science and engineering.
The importance of science and engineering in preparing the technical workforce and a science-literate citizenry has drawn increased attention to the quality of undergraduate science and engineering education and how it can be improved. There are persistent concerns that undergraduate science and engineering courses are not providing students with high-quality learning experiences, nor are they attracting and retaining students in science and engineering fields (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). Colleges and universities also face the challenge of serving an increasingly socially, economically, and ethnically diverse undergraduate population entering college classrooms directly from high school, after a military career or other life experiences, or from postsecondary educational experiences at another institution. Sustained attention to motivating, engaging and supporting the learning of all students who enter college science and engineering classrooms is an imperative.
Completion rates for all undergraduate students, including whites and Asians, are significantly lower in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics than in other disciplines. For example, Hispanic and African American students are as likely as white and Asian students to start college with an interest in science and engineering, but less likely to persist (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2011). Specifically, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprised roughly 30 percent of the national population in 2006, but only 9 percent of the college-educated science and engineering workforce (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2011).
Recognizing these challenges and the need for improvements in undergraduate science and engineering instruction, many institutions are working to identify effective approaches (Association of American Universities, 2011). Faculty members—alone or in collaboration with others—also are engaged in efforts to improve instruction, measure the efficacy of these teaching practices, and understand how students learn the concepts and practices that are fundamental to their disciplines (National Research Council, 2012; Project Kaleidoscope, 2011a, 2011b). Discipline-based education research (DBER)—by systematically investigating learning and teaching in science and engineering and providing a robust evidence base on which to base practice—is playing a critical role in these efforts.