Sustainability Improves Student Learning (SISL) in STEM

An update on work to advance STEM education and promote the teaching of sustainability challenges through psychology

By Robin Hailstorks, PhD

In this column I want to share with you the work that Precollege and Undergraduate Education (PCUE) staff have been doing on behalf of the American Psychological Association to advance STEM education and to promote the teaching of sustainability challenges through psychology. This is also an opportunity for me to share the good work of members of the Society for Environmental, Population, Conservation Psychology (APA Division 34) related to teaching psychology for sustainability.

APA is engaged in a three-year grant project, supported by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), titled “Sustainability Improves Student Learning in STEM” (SISL in STEM). This project builds on APA’s efforts to address global climate change and to promote education for a sustainable future. This project leverages the influence of 11 disciplinary societies to contextualize STEM teaching and learning in terms of 21st century sustainability challenges. The overarching goals of the project are to: 1) Increase student learning in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and 2) Better prepare students for real world 21st century “big questions” (e.g., those that relate to energy, air and water quality, climate change) that they will face as graduates.

This project is a collaborative effort of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), Mobilizing STEM Education for a Sustainable Future, and the Disciplinary Associations Network for Sustainability (DANS). PKAL is one of the leading advocates in the United States for building and sustaining strong undergraduate programs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Mobilizing STEM Education for a Sustainable Future was launched five years ago with funding from the National Science Foundation to pursue strategies at multiple levels to transform undergraduate STEM Education. DANS is a network of over 30 academic disciplinary associations, including APA, and one of its major initiatives is to educate the public about sustainability.

The initial societal partners for this project include the American Association of Physics Teachers, American Chemical Society, American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Psychological Association, American Society for Engineering Education, Association for Career and Technical Education, Mathematical Association of America, National Association of Biology Teachers, National Association of Geoscience Teachers, National Numeracy Network, and a Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (Association for Computing Machinery).

Currently, over 50 members of disciplinary societies are working in six project teams on this SISL in STEM initiative to accomplish the following:

  • Develop and seek endorsement of common language about the importance of and commitment to education for a sustainable future;
  • Gather and disseminate resources to support the infusion of sustainability into teaching and learning;
  • Implement interdisciplinary, problem-based professional development workshops on real-world societal problems;
  • Develop public policy recommendations to include sustainability themes in STEM education and establishing pathways for civic engagement for society members and their students;
  • Conduct audience research to refine the messages of the initiative and to guide communication about sustainability with educators and others; and
  • Develop content for textbooks and online resources to infuse sustainability into introductory STEM courses and improve publisher/author inclusion of activities about sustainability.

APA staff have been heavily engaged in working with two project teams — public policy and resources — to advance the goals of this initiative. This good work has been disseminated in meetings, webinars, and in conference presentations. The work will also be disseminated on the PCUE website.

In September 2013, there will be a convocation at the National Academy of Sciences to share the results of this work and to widen the circle of involved disciplinary societies beyond STEM. To learn more about this initiative, visit the SISL in STEM website. You may also want to visit the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College website to learn more about resources for teaching sustainability related to this initiative.

While APA staff have been working to promote the SISL in STEM initiative during the past few years, APA members have long been engaged in promoting the teaching of psychology for sustainability. Britain A. Scott and Susan M. Koger, members of Division 34, have created a website for psychology teachers to use to infuse sustainability content into psychology courses. This site includes course syllabi, lectures, teaching resources, and a bibliography. I strongly encourage you to visit the site often to learn more about how to use these wonderful resources in your psychology classes.

PCUE staff will be especially pleased to share with you some of the preliminary work that is being done to promote the teaching of psychology for sustainability. Following the convocation in September 2013, I will share more with you about additional resources and future plans for this important initiative.

Best wishes for a great spring term!