Student Success in the Sciences

USF’s membership in prestigious NSF body can benefit all students taking STEM courses.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 2, 2011) – How can students who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) be helped to succeed?


Effective teaching holds the key.


The challenge is finding a way to advance undergraduate STEM education and prepare the future STEM faculty who will make that happen.


Proactive efforts in professional development are under way to meet this challenge with the University of South Florida among those leading the way.   


The USF Graduate School recently applied to become a Core Institutional Member of the National Science Foundation Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), joining 24 other prestigious institutions of higher learning in the group and the only one invited from Florida. 


“We were successful,” said Karen Liller, dean of the Graduate School and associate vice president for Research and Innovation.  “And now we’re part of the prestigious CIRTL Network that has expanded from six to 25 major research universities this year.”


Richard Pollenz, associate dean for undergraduate research, serves as the STEM faculty leader and Robert Potter, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, serves as the co-leader.  Liller is the administrative leader.


CIRTL’s focus is STEM education with a special emphasis on research. Designed to be a diverse body, the member institutions are private and public, large and moderate-sized, serve majority and minority populations and they vary by geographic location. 


Among the members are University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University, Howard University, Texas A&M, the University of Colorado-Boulder and Vanderbilt University.  New members with USF include the University of Maryland, the University of Pittsburgh, Cornell University, Boston University, University of Georgia, Purdue University, Johns Hopkins University, University of California-San Diego and others.


“Our ambitious STEM goals require excellent teachers,” says Liller who attended the CIRTL Forum held in Madison, Wisconsin in October. ”Superb researchers help as well. Integrating teaching and research is something all scholars struggle with to some degree. Nevertheless, research does double duty. Research advances knowledge. It also offers an opportunity to engage students in what we think of as a ‘cognitive apprenticeship.”


She described being at the scholar forum and meeting as “very informative and exciting. The meeting allowed us to learn how the pillars of CIRTL – teaching as research, developing learning communities, and learning through diversity – can successfully be incorporated into our present and future preparation efforts of future STEM faculty.  It was fantastic to talk with faculty and administrative leaders from very prestigious research universities to share and exchange ideas.


“We all agreed that realistic questions and problems can be exciting entry points to interest students if we do our jobs right, and that’s what we are working on getting better at so that students who never considered the sciences come to see that there’s a place for them here in the STEM world.”


Pollenz also found the forum to be very worthwhile.


“The forum validated the importance of the use of sophisticated and research-based pedagogy is on the success of STEM students,” he said.


CIRTL is counting on graduate education to serve as “the strategic leverage point,” according to the organization’s background information.


“Implementation of research-based best practices in the different learning environments promises to build on what is already succeeding,” said Liller. “What makes this organization so important is that it has set out to achieve defined learning goals, goals we all agree are essential.”


She added, “We all know that implementing and advancing effective teaching will help students develop successful professional careers in the STEM fields. Working together to share the best of what we know works represents an important step in the right direction. We want to see our nation’s STEM literacy grow in such a way that we remain competitive on a global scale.


“With CIRTL we are part of a learning community that is actively engaged in teaching as research and our commitment to increasing diversity in the STEM universe can only serve to increase our chances of making this possible.”


There are three designated categories of outcomes within CIRTL expressed through fellows, practitioners and scholars.


“In each category we’re looking for ways to increase effectiveness of teaching and learning environments across all types of settings,” Liller said. “Every time one of the learning communities in the network succeeds, we will share that success with everyone in the network.”


New findings will be made public and currently the CIRTL website ( includes a bibliography of publications, an archive of presentations, posters, course guidebooks, “teaching-as-research” projects and a diversity resources literature review.


“We’re building a dynamic undertaking that will benefit the entire nation,” Liller said.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.