STEM Central

A Community of Practice for NSF STEM Projects

"Looking Back" Blog series: NU STEP-UP: Collaborative Faculty Development and Student Empowerment

"Looking Back" Blog series: NU STEP-UP: Collaborative Faculty Development and Student Empowerment

Here at STEP Central, we’re working towards a greater goal of facilitating a community of practice among STEP grantees. We plan to do this by showcasing a few projects, highlighting successes and learning from mistakes. We will interview project leaders and summarize findings in short blog posts featured on STEP Central. Hopefully, the blogs provide insight for other grantees and allow for greater communication among projects. 

Recently, to kick off the first installment of this blog series, I had the opportunity to speak with Claire Duggan from Northeastern University and Chitra Javdekar from Massachusetts Bay Community College.  Claire and Chitra work together on Northeastern University’s collaborative STEP project, NU STEP-UP. This project has several key components beginning with a partnership between private university Northeastern and multiple community colleges within the area.

When asked to reflect on the successes and challenges of their project, Claire and Chitra had some great insight to share with the STEP Central community. Check out what they’ve learned from their project.

1. When the focus is student success, start with faculty development.

Claire and Chitra approach their project with a top-down mentality that starts at the faculty level.  By creating a faculty network between Northeastern and community colleges that extends well beyond project leads, NU STEP-UP is able to provide educators with expanded resources and perspectives.

For example, to better educate faculty understanding on how students learn, Northeastern Principle Investigator Christos Zahopoulos hosted a series of seminars in collaboration with involved institutions. These seminars were constructed to relate specifically to individual needs and brought together cohorts of various STEM faculty working together to learn and exchange ideas. Participants were able to reflect on how different learning styles related specifically to their own classroom teaching, develop implementation strategies, and present how they were putting those strategies in place. Each institution also launched internal professional development activities for STEM faculty.

The NU STEP-UP project also expanded opportunities for community college partners to take advantage of research done at Northeastern University by increasing offerings for research experiences to both community college faculty and undergraduate students. Facilitating embraced interaction between Northeastern and community colleges as part of a broader impact of research grants has allowed a sustainable capacity building for those involved.


2. Sharing best practices for student projects across institutions empowers students to reach their full potential.

NU STEP-UP pairs faculty development efforts with the funding of student-centered opportunities. In alignment with the project’s collaborative approach, these student programs have shared elements across multiple partner institutions.

During our conversation, Chitra shared an example of this. In replication of a NSF-funded Northeastern course, “High Tech Tools and Toys,” Massachusetts Bay Community College was able to create an engineering computation course using MATLAB programming software.

The class has been offered at Massachusetts Bay for three years, and provides students with an inquiry-based, immersive engineering environment. Students in the class make discoveries about the physical world using fun engineering tools and toys. One student who graduated with an associate degree from Massachusetts Bay recently landed a STEM-related internship specifically because he was familiar with MATLAB. Without the collaborative efforts of Northeastern and Massachusetts Bay, this particular student would not have had this necessary skill.

Sharing elements of these kinds of funding opportunities further strengthens the relationships between Northeastern and community college partners. It also allows for the sharing of best practices and implementation of different ideas to empower students.


3. Collaboration in STEM inevitably triggers future opportunities.

While faculty at Northeastern and partner colleges look to continue these collaborative efforts, many of the findings have also been shared with their state department of education. There are new efforts coming out of the Massachusetts Department of Education that have very similar components to the project’s STEP grant that began six years ago. Statewide implementation of the project’s findings has the powerful potential to build capacity among community colleges, private universities, and public universities.

Many of these program elements should be sustainable, but project leaders are still thinking about new ideas and ways to improve STEM education. The project’s involvement of other faculty has also inspired additional proposals and projects at each institution.

4. Never underestimate the power of relationships.

When considering what component of NU STEP-UP that contributed most to project success, Claire and Chitra agree that its most critical element has been fostering collaborative relationships. “You have to work bottom-up and top-down. If you don’t have the change agents really willing to embrace the core components of the project, then you’re going to be doomed from the start” said Claire. “This work is something that you have to be involved with for the long haul.”