An Ecosystem Intersecting Humanities, Computational, and Engineering Disciplines with Cultural and Other Assets of Our Communities

Stephanie E. August, California State University-Los Angeles; Gustavo Menezes, California State University-Los Angeles; Bettyjo Bouchey, National Louis University; Alan Cheville, Bucknell University; Melissa Ko, Stanford University

Note around Language:
In this document, we refer to our main product as a manifesto. A manifesto as used in this document refers to a public declaration of views or stances, acknowledging what is generally already commonly-held knowledge from publications and past conversations, but then presenting new ideas of what should be done. We are crafting this manifesto to make our vision for the future of STEM education clear to others and give examples of what we could someday attain.

We acknowledge that manifestos have been used and referenced in extremely problematic ways. As a result, they have an association with individuals who have pushed for violent action on the basis of prejudice and hate. We hope to reclaim the original use of the word with our document, but note that you could also equate this manifesto with a “Declaration of Our Vision” or a similar phrase.

The STEM Reimagined Manifesto

Mission Statement

The STEM Reimagined Manifesto is a guide for faculty and administrators in higher education who are interested in widening access and participation. The manifesto seeks to guide all agents involved (students, faculty and staff) toward achieving their full potential by first identifying, then moving away from traditional models of higher education based on industrial metaphors which focus on production and system efficiency, and standardized inputs and outputs, into an ecosystem-based model, in which agents are seen as assets that enrich a learning environment, valued for who they are, their strengths, their desires, and the dreams they bring in, and they are nurtured to thrive. It is only by shifting our thinking from metaphors of production to ones of growth that we can open up alternative futures.


As we redefine the future of STEM education, it is imperative that we consider the diversity of all agents involved, and design an academic setting that works for all. Our product is defined in three deliverables:

  1. A program manifesto that defines key elements of a healthy STEM ecosystem that institutions, colleges, programs, and/or faculty can adapt to the needs of their system,
  2. Day-in-the-life scenarios in the STEM ecosystem, and
  3. An example program following the principles of the STEM ecosystem (biology).

Our manifesto and accompanying materials provides a complete picture of a healthy STEM ecosystem of the future on multiple levels:

  • Physical: institutional => departmental => course-level
  • Teaching & Learning Theory and Philosophy => practice

The manifesto connects the past to the future and is a powerful document that reexamines institutional practices, provides recommendations that support innovative and interdisciplinary program/course design, and creates a pathway to establishing and cultivating a healthy STEM ecosystem.


The challenges of the historical higher education model rises from the fact that it has been designed, in most cases, with a factory-based mindset, in which inputs (students) and agents (faculty and staff) are only valued if they can conform to the specifications of the system, while the diversity and people’s well-being are virtually never considered. As a result, for every output that meets the specifications of the system and “successfully” go through its processes, there are many more who are discarded as “maladjusted”. Also important, is the fact that in conforming to the system inputs and agents often neglect their own backgrounds, desires and strengths, and by doin so they fall short of their full potential.

Herein, we propose an ecosystem-based model for education, in which the well-being of agents (no more inputs) takes the front-stage of planning, designing and implementation activities, people are valued and nurtured, and everyone is thriving (based their own definition of thriving). As the key product, the manifesto begins by defining the set of values we believe can set the stage for meaningful transformation in STEM education:

  • Prioritizes the well-being of the educational stakeholders/agents in the ecosystem, including students, faculty, staff, administrators, and members of the community-at-large
  • Centered on experiences rather than content delivery – “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think” – Socrates
  • Recognizes that individuals develop at different paces, based on their particular circumstances, goals, and background
  • Driven by reflection and formative assessment
  • Honors the diverse cultural wealth and recognizes the competing needs and value of cooperation among multiple stakeholders
  • Multimodal teaching, learning, and assessment designed with the needs of agents in mind.


The goals of the manifesto are to:

  • Reimagine the STEM experience, in which diversity of stakeholders and agents are valued and nurtured so they can achieve their full potential and thrive.
  • Shift the ideas that educational stakeholders / agents / policy makers have of higher education away from industrial metaphors and towards more inclusive and holistic ecosystem metaphors.
  • Propose revised reward mechanisms for stakeholders agents that are aligned with the values of the ecosystem model.
  • Empower agents in the system to make changes towards a healthy ecosystem environment
  • Present health indicators to guide individual and unit assessment in place of traditional metrics to guide groups as they grow their ecosystems.

Assessment Based on Ecosystem Health Indicators

Reflection on Our Assumptions and Values

We reject the idea of learning outcomes that are independent of individual development. We are looking at higher education as an ecosystem and pull our metrics from those which indicate health of the ecosystem. Our metrics are devised from the belief that all individuals are agents of their own development, that each brings in cultural wealth, and also thrive in environments which provide autonomy.

We also push back against the desire to measure easily quantifiable phenomena that actually represent complex issues: admission rates, pass/fail/withdraw rates, retention rates, N-year graduation rates that are aggregated across populations. We aim to reframe metrics from production-oriented educational outcomes historically based on the “factory model” to metrics based on the health of an educational ecosystem. This aim raises several questions that provide lenses or perspectives to contrast current practices drawn from historical factory or pipeline schemas with those of an “ecosystem model” and commensurate changes in what we choose to value.

Based on viewing assessment as asking “actionable questions” we define metrics for success as questions then suggest types of measures that could inform answers and actions:

  • Are all individuals within the ecosystem healthy mentally and physically? Individual, informal questionnaires pushed to a mobile device, trends in campus health data.
  • Does the learning environment reflect the diversity of the region, state, or country? Comparisons between institutional databases across scales (institution as a whole, programs, classes) and demographic data.
  • Does the environment offer the abundance of resources that needed by all individuals who desire to learn? Link university budget processes to defined areas of resource need and track resource use.
  • Can the resources be utilized productively by every individual within the ecosystem? Collect data on resource use and extract patterns.
  • How sustainable and/or resilient is the environment? Make budget scenarios public, plan for catastrophic events such as a global pandemic, draw from resource use data to make decisions.
  • Do individuals show resilience to changing circumstances throughout their lives? Conduct or partner to conduct focused longitudinal surveys of graduates.
  • To what extent can individuals develop at their own pace, based on their individual circumstances, goals, and background? Conduct survey and focus-group research and compare results with institutional data examining student pathways. Understand how students finance their education.
  • To what extent can resources be accessed by all members of the community? Look at resource use, survey community members.
  • Are resources equitably distributed, and can they be shifted readily so they are shared and accessible rather than hoarded? Shift to more flexible budget models, support common-pool resources, examine access policies on a regular basis.
  • To what extent does the learning environment address pressing challenges, and do individuals feel they are contributing solutions to the challenge at-hand? Use survey tools and focus groups. Consider tools such as SenseMaker.
  • To what extent are individuals developing and being nurtured in their growth in the three areas of foundational, meta- and humanistic development? The narrative portfolio system described next would assess this outcome.
  • To what extent are individuals continuously reflecting on their own personal development and able to change direction as new visions and opportunities arise? The narrative portfolio system described next would assess this outcome.
  • To what extent is every individual able to act to change the educational ecosystem to improve the ability for themselves and others to thrive? Again, narrative portfolios.

Central to the many of the suggested measures is more widespread data collection than most universities currently undertake. As many predict the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Schwab, Currency Press, New York 2016), universities would need to consider how to invest in such data collection, storage, and analysis.

Assessing Individual Growth through Narrative Portfolio Assessment

The ecosystem model puts the individual–whether student, faculty, or staff–at the center of their own experiential environment and strives to enable learning by ensuring that: 1) there is a focus on personal development in the domains of foundational, meta, and humanistic knowledge; and 2) the environment offers rich and readily accessible learning opportunities and resources to everyone. This emphasis on development- and resource-based assessment is in some ways antithetical to an outcomes-based assessment since outcomes are negotiated by, rather than defined for, the individual and change over time as the individual grows in all three domains of knowledge.

For this reason we propose that assessment be based on development of student narratives supported by materials that demonstrate their pathways. Portfolio systems are well-suited to this type of assessment. As Jerome Bruner noted, education can be seen as either creating new cultures or consuming existing cultures. The goal of this project is to stimulate new cultures in education which requires individuals be given freedom to experiment and create. Bruner, building upon Vygotsky, argues that there are two modes of cognitive function, rational and narrative, and that we make sense of lived reality through stories as much as reason. Each mode has its own logic that implies causality, but while rational modes of thought require proof, narrative modes are based on likeliness or alignment with one’s past experience. In the ecosystem framework narrative modes are important since while rational modes of thought strive for abstraction independent of human concerns, narrative modes strive for situatedness and connection to others. The ability to connect an individual’s experiences to the learning environment and enable their own voice in expressing plans for their future is central in connecting assessment to our vision.

In our vision of assessment, all members of a university construct stories about their experiences in an ongoing, recursive process that leads to valid, generalized abstractions about the world. Thus constructing a narrative about one’s future self is the process by which discrete learning experiences are synthesized into a coherent, and self-referential whole that takes into accounts one’s own history and cultural wealth. How the narrative changes over time illustrates the college is not just a place to learn things you did not know, but to be able to envision new futures for yourself that were not previously within your own scope of possibilities.

While there are multiple definitions of narrative, our working definition for assessment purposes is individuals taking actions to achieve specific intentions in settings that offer particular means. The narratives an individual creates emerge through tensions or exigencies between these elements such as when the means available to a person do not support action, or their intentions do not align with the setting (location) they find themselves in. It is our hypothesis that meaningful learning occurs when faculty, staff, and students have to navigate such tensions and it is this we hope to capture through narrative portfolios. By having students and others use portfolios to capture self-narratives about how they must navigate educational spaces and opportunities, we believe it is possible to develop ontological commitment. Ontological commitment captures that is you have to make a conscious commitment to try to be someone (e.g. an engineer or biologist) in order to become that person in the future. Such personal commitment to a larger cause is aided by consciously developing a self-narrative and exploring new roles and story pathways. Evaluating these narratives and connecting them to lived experiences through portfolios allows assessment of individual student trajectories along the dimensions of foundational, meta, and humanistic knowledge.

Assessing Individual Well-being and Satisfaction

Awareness of individual well-being and satisfaction is critical to achieving success. Measuring whether individuals are healthy mentally and physically, whether they feel they are nurtured and developing well, if they are continuously self-reflecting, changing, improving, is an incredibly complicated picture to capture. These aspects have often been implied or inferred through performance-based metrics such as the individual choice to persist in a course or degree program, as well as interpersonal observations.

A system that values students, faculty and staff satisfaction with their intellectual engagement and career trajectories, a deeply personal and culture-dependent notion, necessitates some self-reporting on the part of the individual. To this end, we can borrow from instruments developed to capture the different elements of a person’s wellbeing. Some dimensions of wellness (taken from Berea College at include:

  • Spiritual Wellness is expanding our sense of purpose and meaning in life.
  • Emotional Wellness is coping effectively with life and creating satisfying relationships.
  • Cultural Wellness is being aware of their own background, and acknowledging, respecting, understanding and engaging with other cultural backgrounds.
  • Occupational Wellness is personal satisfaction and enrichment from one’s work.
  • Intellectual Wellness is recognizing creative abilities and finding ways to expand on skills.
  • Social Wellness is how we relate to and connect with others.

One possible mechanism that complements narrative construction through portfolios is to survey all members of the institution (our “ecosystem”) or a random subsample of them at multiple timepoints to capture general wellbeing and whether there are inequities between different groups based on factors like identity, demographic, or status. Such information would complement the data already often collected such as classroom observations, evaluations, etc. This information would be used in a formative, quasi real-time basis to make adjustments to the campus environment.

Note that aspects of well-being have also been constructed to relate to notions of resilience, a key property that is analogous to ecosystem sustainability. We will address the sustainability of the institution as an entire system, and how it will be assessed, in later sections.

Assessing Ecosystem Diversity

One other critical guiding value we propose is the idea of diversity that mirrors the essential property of biodiversity in natural ecosystems. In ecosystems diversity is critical to resilience. If the institution identifies that there is a stark discrepancy between the identity make-up of the population they aim to serve, and the actual members of their current ecosystem, this is a critical problem that must be remedied strategically and thoughtfully. This notion is true at all levels of the institution: parity should be observed at all status levels (e.g. students, faculty, staff) and across all degree programs.

At present, many institutions do measure the demographics of their different members, but we choose to highlight this metric as an area that should guide action and decision-making over other traditionally favored metrics. We acknowledge that many institutions exist in a state where deliberate action (e.g. affirmative action in admissions or hiring) may not be allowed. However, in-depth reflection on whether there are implicit or explicit barriers that are causing individuals to be filtered out or less likely to persist.

Note that it is important that rather than just achieving the right proportions of different identity groups, it is critical that they truly are well-integrated and thriving parts of the ecosystem. In line with knowing that you have achieved representative numbers from historically marginalized groups, the system should show that these individuals have no disparities in well-being (the prior section) and access (the following section).

Assessing Equity in Ecosystem Opportunities

Even if there is some representation of different entities in the ecosystem (e.g. numerous species present in the biome), we have some notion that it is important that there is a balance between all individuals. That is, all individuals should be able to thrive through equal access to the resources they need and opportunities that enable thriving. Note that in an ecosystem there is not competition for one set of resources. Different species utilize different resources in a way that leads to a synergistic relationships; all contribute.

Equal access to resources can be ascertained both on the student’s end (self-reporting of practice) and on the level of the offices that control different resources. For example, departments can track who is taking advantage of the opportunity to conduct research with a lab, whether that be for academic credit or for a paid internship. Is this engagement fairly equal between students regardless of their identity or background? On a similar note, students might also have discrepancies in access to leadership positions, committee involvement, and work opportunities on campus that would be important to study.

Similar phenomena should also be studied within staff and faculty, especially as relates to funding support and opportunities for growth and promotion.

Such access includes more difficult-to-address factors such as family wealth and social capital. We have no great insights on these matters other than to note that they will affect the larger ecosystem and attempts should be made to help develop social capital for those who lack it and minimize how individual resources can interfere with access generally.

Healthy and Unhealthy Ecosystems

From the biological perspective, independent of human observers, ecosystems are neither good nor bad, they simply are. But an educational ecosystem needs to align with and support societal values, and thus is subject to societal judgements. It is important, then, to consider the case of what might distinguish a healthy from an unhealthy educational ecosystem. Here we explore this question while trying to avoid making judgements from our own position of privilege.

The Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrum worked on practical systems for governing common pool resources (Governing the Commons, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990), that is natural resources upon which groups of people rely for their livelihood such as water systems for agriculture, forests, fisheries, etc. She found that systems that were managed well had several commonalities and hypothesized certain social structures were necessary. These provide guidance for how to manage an educational ecosystem, particularly in the case it begins to become unhealthy, that is be managed non-sustainably or not support agents in the system.

In brief, sound and sustainable management of common pool resources, such as a university in the model proposed here, relies upon several factors. These include having well established norms and ensuring all members have social capital. The university community needs to define shared moral and ethical standards and help each other enforce them. Agents need to have shared knowledge of the socio-ecological system so educating newcomers about the ecosystem would need to be integrated into formal educational activities. Agents also need to find the resources that are available to them are also important to them. If agents cannot find value in what is provided the self-organization of the system becomes more difficult to maintain. Thus an educational ecosystem needs to clearly articulate what values it provides and align recruiting standards of new members with these values. Maintaining the norms that lead to ecosystem well-being requires that leadership be invested in the environment and be both skilled and respected. Community elders have a key role in resolving disputes.

In the case that agents violated norms or ignored community guidelines, Ostrum found that sustainable common pool resources were governed by a rapidly escalating scale of responses that started with noting bad behavior, having the community work to address the factors responsible for the behavior, punishing the bad behavior, then removing offenders from the community. While somewhat draconian sounding and somewhat at odds with the liberal values of higher education in a system that relies on student tuition to function, maintaining the ecosystem at the expense of individual participation may be an important factor to avoid “invasive species” and maintain ecosystem health. Just as there are currently a diversity of universities that offer students different experiences and cultures, developing an ecosystem needs to build from institutional beliefs, attitudes, and values and be clearly communicated to potential future members who may wish to join the community.

Examples: Day-in-the-Life Scenarios in an Ecosystem Model

Here we share some more “micro” or course-level examples that envision specific student experiences in parallel with faculty perspectives of the same experiences. These scenarios provide a more tangible, deeper dive into a particular class one might take (e.g. Sleep, Building Bridges, Data Privacy). The intention of these short vignettes is to contrast how individuals’ experiences in a program that is based on the ecosystem-based design principles articulated above could differ from more traditional program that derive from more factory-based paradigms which are designed to provide a pipeline of students.

Scenario 1: Sleep Course in the Biology Department

Please see a description of the Biology degree on this page.

Day-in-the-Life with the Sleep Course

The Sleep course in the Biology department meets from 1-2:50 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week. This quarter, there are 30 students enrolled, of which five are seniors who are taking or retaking the course in a leadership role. Two faculty are the instructional leads and represent the Biology department as well as the Psychology department at this institution.

In the first few weeks, students formed teams guided by one of the five seniors (hereafter referred to as a peer mentor or PM) and one of the faculty instructors. Each team started out by investigating “what do we know about Sleep, and how do we know this” for a question of their choosing. Some questions that groups addressed included:

  • How much diversity do we observe in how much/often we sleep?
  • What happens if we do not get enough sleep?
  • What happens inside our bodies while we sleep?
  • What kinds of sleep disorders exist and how are they treated?
  • What factors (e.g. lifestyle, chemical, physical environment) disrupt sleep?
  • What are some ways to improve the quality of our sleep?

Each group organized to perform literature reviews and just-in-time learning around relevant disciplinary knowledge such as cell signaling (as it relates to sleep hormones) or twin studies research methods (as it relates to possible genetic components of sleep) based on their background and their own learning needs. Each group created a learning experience (e.g. podcast, slideshow, interactive fiction, museum exhibit) that was presented at a learning showcase on Sleep open to all students and members of the community.

In week 4 of the quarter, the students are forming new teams focused around answering some unsolved question in the world of Sleep. Teams are formed such that each person is working with mostly new students in the course and gets a new PM and works with the other faculty member.

During the team formation process, teams are always asked to meet together with their PM and complete a team contract where they share their own interests, strengths, and constraints. The team agrees on group norms (e.g. how to communicate, how decisions are made) and identifies a few unanswered questions they are interested in. Going from Tuesday to Thursday, each member of the class does some preliminary research and comes back Thursday to discuss together with their group. Groups then do informal chalk-talks in a jigsaw fashion to pitch their selected question, and how they might answer it, to other members of the class. Questions are then refined with feedback and approved by PMs and faculty.

Some projects currently underway after this process are:

  • Can humans evolve to need less sleep?
  • Are there more efficient patterns to sleep than one 7-9 hour block?
  • Are dreams important for our health/wellbeing when we sleep?

Su-Jin (Biology Major) Perspective

Su-Jin is a junior who has declared Biology as their major. They are currently taking courses full-time and their schedule this quarter includes Sleep, Pandemics, Visual Communication, and Project Management.

Core Courses: In the Sleep course, Su-Jin just finished and presented a team project where they created a museum exhibit to explain the factors that impact sleep and how we know that they do (i.e. what is the scientific evidence). In their Pandemics course, Su-Jin is in the process of designing a new project where Su-Jin, alongside three peers, are trying to answer the question: how might viruses have first evolved? To answer this question, the team is trying to build computational simulations to see how evolutionary dynamics may have influenced the rise of viruses. In the lab, Su-Jin’s team is also studying viruses from a biochemical and synthetic biology approach.

Linker Courses: In their learning community on Visual Communication, Su-Jin shared their work on putting together elements of the museum exhibit and focused on the user experience of viewing each element and how to sequence/connect them. As the project progressed, Su-Jin brought in drafts of the elements and the plan for spatially arranging them to each course meeting to get feedback from their peers (who are taking all kinds of core courses, not just Sleep or Pandemics). Feedback focused on visual elements such as use of color, engagement, clarity, and accessibility. Su-Jin used this feedback to improve their contribution to the Sleep team.

In the Project Management learning community, Su-Jin is working together with their peers to craft the plan for their Pandemics research project. This plan includes mapping out the different elements (e.g. computational simulation, biochemical experiments), who is responsible for what, how long they estimate each task will take, and whether they are interdependent or independent. Their peers provide feedback on these estimates, as well as help identify milestones and benchmarks for quality. Su-Jin takes all this feedback and brings peer contributions back to the Pandemics course team.

Shelby (Non-Major) Perspective

Shelby is a sophomore interested in majoring in Public Health. Shelby is currently taking courses part-time due to family obligations during this term. Shelby is progressing towards their degree by taking a Public Health course in Epidemiology, but they chose to also take the Sleep course from the Biology department because their father lives with sleep apnea.

Shelby brought their interest in health to the table when participating in the team project on sleep disorders and their treatments. This project had two peers representing Biology majors and one peer from the Exercise Science degree program. Their investigation incorporated personal experiences with sleep apnea and insomnia, but also used the lenses of the role of exercise, obesity, pharmacology, and health awareness/misconceptions. Shelby knows a lot about the large-scale approaches to studying diseases or thinking through public health concerns and outreach.

However, Shelby is less familiar with the medical details such as human physiology and the genetics/molecular biology that relates to disease pathology. To better educate themselves, Shelby self-studies materials around the human brain, the head and neck (as relates to sleep apnea), the genetic components of sleep disorders, and biological changes in the body that occur with exercise or excessive weight. Shelby identified these gaps in knowledge through conversations with their team as well as mentoring and guidance from their PM and faculty lead Dr. Tomomi Ah. In contrast, Sasha, one of Shelby’s teammates and a current Biology major who is aspiring to be a doctor, needed to reach more into the psychology and sociology around health conditions to write about health awareness/misconceptions from an academic perspective.

Their project product was a podcast that Shelby (with permission of their peers) as an aspiring community health program coordinator includes on their professional website to show their ability to clearly communicate on sleep conditions to the public.

Dr. Camryn Amore (Faculty) Perspective

Dr. Amore is an associate professor in the Biology department who is co-teaching the Sleep course with Dr. Tomomi Ah from the Psychology department. Dr. Amore runs a research lab where they study neural development and how chemical signaling influences synapse formation. Amore has previously taught the Consciousness and Pain courses.

Dr. Amore and Dr. Ah both guide the formation of teams and identifying/connecting to the just-in-time learning that different teams need. Teams are formed by professors looking through the student interest profiles and the diversity of strengths they bring to the team. The two professors have split up their individual mentoring of the teams based on mentoring style or disciplinary specialty. For example, Dr. Amore mentored the group that focused on what happens in the body during sleep while Dr. Ah worked with the group that focused on improving sleep quality.

During each course meeting, the faculty start the session by giving an agenda of goals for teams to accomplish during their meeting time as well as any general announcements. The instructors move between checking in with each group, answering questions, and finding resources as needed. For example, Dr. Amore in talking to the aforementioned project group finds several videos, review papers, and course materials to provide the group as they familiarize themselves with concepts like different organ systems and homeostasis principles.

Dr. Amore and Dr. Ah must work together to provide formative assessments for students. This process may include individual meetings with students on observations of their contributions to process, team meetings to discuss dynamics of working together, review of project milestones, and lastly assessment of the final products to assist students in putting this work into their growing portfolios. In this they are aided by the university-supported electronic portfolio system and access to rich information on the pathways each student is taking through the program.

Scenario 2: Introduction to Computer Science Scenario


Friends Jody Rhys, accepted as a first year computer science student, Alex Gueye, transferring into Studio Arts from Rosedale Community College, first year engineering student Nour Gomez, and undeclared second year student Riley Takada gathered to look over the list of courses still open for enrollment. Riley mused, “Wouldn’t it be great for the three of us to take the same class?” Alex responded, “Yes, especially if we could work on a project together.” After a few minutes, Jody declared, “Ah, ha! The Intro to Computer Science course is project based, satisfies the programming badge for computer science and engineering majors, and is open to all students.” “There are 8 slots left – let’s enroll now,” replied Nour.

Seeing the possibilities, the quartet explored the nano-courses available to give the team the background needed to success in the anticipated course project. As students enrolled in the course, each automatically received a personalized list of suggested nano-courses structured to their own background. These short-duration courses would be available for each student to complete on-line in modular form at any time. They agreed to commit to completing as many of the suggested modules as possible to ensure their team’s success in the course, and to check in frequently on each other’s progress and needs for additional support.


Dr. Sage Sanchez looked over the survey that went out to all students enrolled in the Introduction to Computer Science course. Students were from ten different majors. Three potential four-person teams had already formed. The rest of the groups would form the first week of the term after students met one another and assessed their interests and abilities. The members of the Computer Science, Studio Arts, Engineering and undeclared group would each contribute a different skill set to the project. The survey results collated with automatically generated baseline measurements of each student’s foundational, meta, and humanistic knowledge, based upon the student’s university application, past performance, and survey responses.

The undeclared major had previous programming experience gained on the job during an internship at an aerospace firm, but appeared to lack creativity. The Computer Science major gained a significant amount of Humanistic knowledge through a Youth in Government program, but had no programming experience. Ethics and problem solving were the strengths of the engineering student, who was weak in communication skills. The Studio Arts major had worked as a graphic artist, demonstrated creativity, and had familiarity with digital tools used in graphic arts.

Dr. Sanchez thought this would be a solid group in which each of the students would contribute complimentary talents and would successfully complete the multimedia project they proposed. With an iterative development cycle for the project, each of the team members would be able to demonstrate competency or mastery by the end of the term, based upon their starting point and their individual gains during the term.


Jody, Alex, Nour, and Riley began the semester by entering a list of the skills, knowledge, and nano-credentials each planned to gain over the course of the project into the instructor’s online tracking system. Dr. Sanchez met with the group and together they designed a project that would enable each student to achieve those personal goals, and the hardware, software, and communication platform needed for success. Along the way, the team members were encouraged to identify additional nano-courses that would support the project while also satisfying other requirements. Jody and Riley selected a creativity workshop that they would complete together. Alex chose an ethics workshop, and Nour chose a rhetoric workshop, to build confidence in presenting the team’s work. A team plan of learning objectives, roles, responsibilities, activities, and review schedule was drawn up with the guidance of Dr. Sanchez as a contract, mapping out individual and team expectations. The schedule included periodic peer review events, self-assessment exercises, and weekly reflection on individual and team progress, as well as plans for the future.

Over the term, each team progresses at its own pace. Students are encouraged to name their teams and take ownership of their projects. Individuals are expected to contribute their expertise to their own projects and demonstrate altruism by providing a sounding board and advice to other teams. Students are not all expected to have all knowledge, just to know where and how to find it. They are comfortable seeking guidance from Dr. Sage and fellow students when they hit roadblocks. Dr. Sage provides a range of questions for the teams to address during their bi-weekly team peer reviews. These interactions energize the students over the course of the term.

The student development platform supports collaborative design, coding, and documentation, as well as peer review and personal reflection. Built-in automated observers or tutors are available to guide students as they design, code, and write, providing just-in-time hints and easy access to additional resources.

Student work environments communicate with an instructor dashboard that tracks each student’s contract and their progress toward growing along the foundational, humanistic, and meta knowledge components of their work. The work environment also support intra- and inter-team communication, and as well as a channel for maintaining contact with the instructor.

The team contracts become part of Sage’s faculty portfolio, along with an overview of the mechanics and goals that Sage has for the course. These are shared with peers, department chair, and mentors, who are encouraged to provide feedback and support throughout the term.


Instructor dashboard reflects a lag in the team project and meets with each member individually and as a group. Instructor suggests helpful mini-courses that were not automatically flagged previously, and refers one student to counseling after sensing that something was amiss in the student’s outside life.

The student work environment and instructor dashboard enable the instructor to track team progress on a daily or more frequent basks, and receives alerts when a team appears to be experiencing obstacles, or is ready for additional challenges.


During the term, each student receives is able to track their improvement slopes for foundational, meta, and humanistic knowledge. They are also able to see how their personal performance as well as the team performance along the three trajectories compares to the class average.

Scenario 3: Roger the Registrar, an Administrator’s Perspective 

Roger’s life as an associate registrar had been upended since the university chose to shift to an ecosystem framework in an attempt to offer a more just and equitable education. While not as confusing at the change had been initially, he had realized over time that the changes in mindset to understand the ideas behind to the new program would take quite a bit of time to achieve. Yet he was committed to helping the faculty and staff adapt to the new perspectives the ecosystem framework Coriolis U had adopted. Looking at his to-do list for the day Roger blocked out his time into changes to the student learning tracking system, student petitions, and preparing the monthly evaluation statement for chairs and other administrators.

Walking across the admin building to the conference room, Roger stopped to get a cup of coffee before the systems planning team meeting. Today’s meeting was about integrating new modules into the record system that allowed students to choose which assignments in courses would count towards the competencies reflected on their narrative transcripts. Enabling students to have more control of their grades had been one of the most difficult changes to the university infrastructure, but by tagging individual assignments with competencies students no longer were subject to a poor grade by messing up on one exam. Today’s meeting focused on the implementation of a system that allowed students to edit and customize the competencies listed on narrative transcript to better reflect their own educational journey. The team spent most of the meeting preparing a presentation for the university advisory board so that stakeholders such as local industry who hired graduates would understand the changes.

Heading back to his office Roger worked on student petitions over lunch. In the shift from a department-centered curriculum to university supported educational pathways Coriolis U had found that advisors, faculty, and department chairs often didn’t understand or appreciate the educational benefits of the competencies students had assembled if they were too far outside the discipline. Having a central location to approve such learning experiences had greatly facilitated the process of approval. After reviewing the requests Roger passed them to the student-faculty panel who had final authority over the decisions.

After lunch Roger turned his attention to assessment. Initially Roger had dreaded the thought of providing monthly updates. Fortunately Coriolis U’s adoption of more flexible software that allowed micro-learning experiences to be approved and assessed made it much easier to understand the trajectories of thousands of students. The adoption of a university-wide portfolio system that enabled students to connect assignments to their own emergent narrative provided a rich dataset. The monthly report generated by the system showed several pathways that needed to be investigated. Despite advertising the expanded hours of the video lab and campus Makerspace, it seemed students still did not utilize these resources despite clear data showing the need for the learning offered in these facilities. Roger noted they were both managed by Campus Activities, an office headed by Dolores Umbridge and scheduled a short meeting to see if overly draconian space access policies inhibited student participation.

Conclusion and Connection with Foundational, Meta, and Humanistic Knowledge

In the above we have sought to outline how particular assumptions and mindsets affect the conceptions of higher education that students, faculty, staff, and administrators hold. We advocate moving from mental models or schemas based on pipelines or factory- or production-based analogies to that of an educational ecosystem. We outlined several foundational assumptions, explored ways to assess student progress, and provided some vignettes from the perspective of students, faculty, and administrators to highlight some differences between existing programs and a speculative instantiation of an eco-system based paradigm.

21st Century Learning

The model we outline above does not directly address foundational, meta, and humanistic knowledge, but rather creates a space in which such knowledges naturally emerge. In other words we see as an underlying assumption that knowledge has to reside somewhere in order for it to be taught. In traditional programs it is assumed such knowledges reside in faculty and other experts. In an ecosystem model all agents within the ecosystem are repositories of foundation, meta, and humanistic knowledge. If one reinterprets the figure below (drawn from the foundational document for the workshop) as representing the repository of knowledge within an agent, then the distribution of knowledge may vary, i.e. a faculty member hold much more foundational knowledge within their discipline than a student does, but all agents have knowledge that benefits the larger ecosystem. In other words knowledge of any type is a key resource in an educational ecosystem.

The challenge then is not to implement curricular or course change that seeks to re-balance knowledge in STEM degree programs, but to create an environment which recognizes that all agents hold varying degrees of foundational, meta, and humanistic knowledge and enable each to develop in ways that align with their envisioned future (as well as envision new futures for themselves). We believe this is best done by assessing outcomes that are development- and resource-focused which enable institutions to make sure each agent has access to needed resources and the agency to utilize it for their own betterment.

Overview of a Biology Degree

Stephanie E. August, California State University-Los Angeles; Gustavo Menezes, California State University-Los Angeles; Bettyjo Bouchey, National Louis University; Alan Cheville, Bucknell University; Melissa Ko, Stanford University

Biology as a domain can no longer remain siloed off from other bodies of knowledge without risking underserving or alienating our future students. While new majors have emerged to seemingly integrate the study of life with specialized skills or concepts (e.g. bioengineering, computational biology, science and society), all of these represent further fracturing of biology as a discipline rather than bringing together critical components that future biologists need to thrive and serve their communities.

This reimagining of a biology major aims to re-integrate human connection and the role of social justice in science, while also preparing students to engage in challenging problem-solving scenarios that draw on quantitative and/or computational skillsets. By de-prioritizing traditional course line-ups in biology (e.g. biochemistry, genetics, developmental biology), students will instead navigate the major by exploring critical issues that relate to biology and require an understanding of concepts and skills set forth in Vision and Change to effectively address. Through both student choice and shared fundamental competencies, students in this biology major should be prepared for entering biotech, government/non-profits, graduate research, health careers, or any other career of choice.

Design Philosophy

The program will be underpinned by a spirit of open pedagogy and multimodal teaching and learning where all students and faculty co-create and publish new ideas, visions, and imaginings on how biological frameworks can shape areas of human society previously thought to be purely managed by other disciplines. The program’s hidden curriculum will develop student agency, self-efficacy, and innovation mindset through the principles of open pedagogy and multimodal learning. Through this system of openness and choice, the program will host and maintain a website containing the body of knowledge produced from coursework that can be openly shared to benefit those willing to consume it, and also encourage students and faculty to publish their work by furnishing writing and editorial support. This repository will be ultimately hosted and moderated by the department as evidence of the work that they produce in collaboration with faculty, staff, and students.

Program-level Learning Goals

This program takes a more holistic view of educating students for their future work and civic experiences. Students can be encouraged to identify and value their own strengths. Faculty can motivate students to use those strengths to demonstrate their ability to contribute to collaborative problem-solving in the workplace.

Students in this biology program will be able to:

  • locate, interpret, and evaluate scientific information
  • analyze biological data through visualization, statistics, or data science
  • make inferences and solve problems using models and simulations
  • elicit, listen to, and incorporate ideas from teammates with different perspectives and backgrounds
  • demonstrate the ability to critically analyze ethical issues in the conduct of science
  • recognize the impacts of science on a local and global scale

Connection with Foundational Knowledge

Digital/ICT Literacy

Students will need to demonstrate their ability to interact with multiple forms of information and technologies either to learn what is already known in a field, find where problems exist, and develop and present their solutions. Computers and computer-associated skills are featured in numerous linker courses, but basic searching of the scientific literature and discerning good sound studies will be critical in all core courses.

Core Content

Core content is a simplified notion in biology as biology operates in many levels of scope and complexity. Vision and Change specifically calls out the following ideas: transformation of energy and matter, systems, information flow, structure function, and evolution. However, each of these can be interpreted in multiple lenses (e.g. systems of molecules, cells, organisms, populations, abiotic and biotic factors). Students will certainly engage in all core tenets of Vision and Change, but will have freedom to experience (or even specialize) in different areas. No biologist is a master of all areas at all levels of scales and through all lenses when they graduate from a degree program. Rather they have a working understanding of each that they can transfer to new areas when they must self-learn. We always confront new ideas in biology.

Cross-Disciplinary Knowledge

All courses strive to avoid single department and/or discipline silos. The goal is to encourage faculty and students from diverse disciplines and backgrounds to participate. This integration could be accomplished within the institution, or could bring in guest speakers/teachers outside of the institution (e.g. policy makers, social workers, nurses, investors).

Connection with Meta Knowledge

Creativity & Innovation

These course address unsolved problems and unmet needs. There are objectively no correct answers for students. Creativity and innovation are constantly required and encouraged with formative assessments and grading that does not punish failure. In fact, we should encourage students to be bold and give them chances to recover from failure without fear of how it will affect their grades.

Problem Solving & Critical Thinking

Students will always engage in a project around some fundamental question or need area. For example, students will not just need to learn what we know about sleep so far: they might engage in a research project to understand why some people don’t need to sleep as much, or they might design a project to support those afflicted with sleep apnea who lack the resources for a CPAP machine. These courses avoid cookie cutter labs where the answers are known, but instead challenge students to find unsolved problems in the world that they care to pursue and think about how they impact people and society.

Communication & Collaboration

The inherent team-based or learning-community-based nature of courses and the fact that all questions/problems are addressed with the audience who is impacted in mind means that both collaboration and public communication are critical. Constant project milestones (e.g. check-ins, write-ups, presentations) as formative assessment provide multiple opportunities to practice. A final learning showcase or portfolio can communicate students’ insights to the institutional community or the larger public if we invite the local community and industry experts.

Connection with Humanistic Knowledge

Life/Job Skills

Students will be consistently engaged in building and refining their own portfolios and showing evidence of their growth as a student. This evolving body of work is much more reflective of how individuals are assessed in their careers. The emphasis of these courses where students adapt to new scenarios and must demonstrate their learning in open-ended ways is more reflective of the workplace. Perseverance in the face of failure is a key life skill and is best fostered through guided and supported failure experiences where students can contextualize what is happening and not interpret themselves as failures. Accomplishing this requires close mentoring and team cohesiveness.

Ethical/Emotional Awareness

Students will be able to work in teams and think about ethical impacts. The inherent structuring of all courses around team projects and learning communities will encourage constant social/emotional awareness. Time will be dedicated to team/self-reflection and conversations on purely management/interpersonal issues. Ethical thinking is also key and will be necessary

Cultural Competence

Where cultural competence is defined as “the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures,” we must examine where students will interact with people across cultures. Being able to practice this skill rests on the assumption that by design, we are bringing in and retaining diverse students and faculty who express humility in learning from one another (without placing the burden of education on any one identity group). While courses can be designed to be less Western-centric (i.e. decolonizing the syllabus) and incorporate case studies/project areas/voices from outside the usual canon, a lot of responsibility also falls on the institution as a whole (not the design of the program) to foster cultural humility.

Program-level Assessments

Some of the easier (i.e. low requirement for human hours) mechanisms for tracking data and conducting assessments will be reviewed continuously, such as at least once per year if not more often. Other aspects that require significant time investment will be conducted on an alternating basis. For example, senior portfolio reviews will be integral to the graduating cohort and surveys can be largely automated in distribution and analysis once it is well-designed so review of these should occur each year.

Specific competency assessments and focus groups take much more time to administer and can be done every 2-3 years on a staggered schedule so that no one aspect of assessment is neglected for several years in a row. The faculty will be integral members of this process though some staffing roles should also be responsible for the organization and execution of these assessment efforts.

Students’ Growth as Individuals in Program

Senior Portfolios

Once students declare interest in the program or register for a Biology department course with an intent to major, the department will create a portfolio space for the student. This virtual space gives a clear way that students can back up their work to the cloud, but also provides the infrastructure by which they can share their work with their advisors and with the department review committee when they petition to graduate.

In this space, students will upload evidence of their major projects from core courses they have taken. This evidence could be the entire project if reasonable (e.g. a single video or audio file for a podcast, a slideshow) or could be materials that try to capture an experience (e.g. photos of the physical museum exhibit alongside the stand-out elements). Students will also be asked to include reflections and meta-commentary around each uploaded project. A major theme/part of the prompt in these reflections will be growth, where students address how these projects contributed to their learning and evidence new skills/competencies they are beginning to master.

Portfolios will be a feature of the student’s ongoing conversation with the advisor. When they meet quarterly to review the student’s choice of courses and overall academic/professional goals, the pair will review the portfolio and determine if there are areas the student can work on and the opportunities that address those areas.

When students are petitioning to graduate with the Biology degree, they will take the final linker course Senior Portfolio to prepare for the portfolio review. In this learning community, students in their last few terms of the program will meet to review their entire portfolio and accumulated work to prepare a final portfolio to present to the Biology department review committee. With the help of their peers, students will identify their 3-4 strongest projects across their entire degree program and their 1-2 weakest projects. Over the term, students will utilize the linker course as an opportunity to craft their narrative that summarizes their overall learning in the program citing their projects as evidence. To showcase how they have grown, students will also tackle their 1-2 weakest projects and revise these past projects, receiving guidance and feedback from peers. The revised projects will be accompanied with commentary that identifies weaknesses, explains the choices to revise, and argues how it evidences the ways in which the student has grown.

Submitted senior portfolios will be reviewed by the student’s advisor, as well as two other faculty members and a student peer chosen randomly. Approval of these portfolios using a provided rubric is required to graduate.

Competency Assessments and Concept Inventories

The aim of this entire institutional reimagining is to elevate intangible and often more difficult to assess goals over content goals that are easier to grade and quantify in numbers. However, the department may consider assessing whether students are still getting the core concepts from Vision and Change using either open-ended assessments graded with a rubric or using concept inventories. All of these will be administered for program-level assessment purposes and will not affect students’ grades in any way.

Individual Wellbeing and Satisfaction in Program


As part of the larger institutional initiative, random samples of individuals at all levels (e.g. student, staff, faculty) will be identified in the department to participate in a survey on their own wellbeing and satisfaction. Wellbeing is described in multiple dimensions and can be at least approximated using validated, close-ended survey instruments.

In particular, questions partially might address key areas:

  • Do individuals in the Biology department feel deeply satisfied and enriched by their work (whether that be their studies, their research/teaching, their administrative duties)?
  • Do individuals feel like they have the opportunities to express themselves and showcase their strengths in the Biology department?
  • Do individuals feel meaningfully connected with others through peer, mentoring, managerial relationships in the Biology department?
  • Do individuals in the Biology department feel able to cope with failure and overcome barriers?
  • Do individuals feel that they are on track for achieving their purpose through their involvement in the Biology department?

It is critical that we use this data to identify areas of weakness in the department to re-orient practice and shape future decisions. For example, revealing that there is starkly low self-reporting of meaningful connections or satisfaction with work, or that the numbers differ among groups, should guide departmental conversations and planning for the subsequent year.

Exit Interviews and Career Tracing

As part of ongoing assessment efforts, a sample of graduating seniors will be asked to participate in an exit interview. Sufficient numbers should be recruited to participate if there is not enough staffing to support interviewing every single senior that graduates in a cohort. These interviews will be conducted with someone ideally in a role that does not hold power/influence over the student so that the student can speak freely. Questions might include:

  • Which aspects of the Biology degree program contributed the most to your learning and growth? Which aspects contributed the least?
  • How did your time in the Biology department contribute to your professional goals? What was missing?
  • Did you feel that your unique strengths and background was recognized and value in the Biology department? Why or why not?
  • Describe any interpersonal relationships (e.g. peers, mentoring, advising) that supported you during your time in the Biology department.

Career tracing will consist of a combination of quick surveys sent to alumni and where responses are missing, using website searching on sites like LinkedIn to identify where alumni end up in the professional world.

Focus Groups and Town Halls

To get answers to questions like those in the survey, but in a much more qualitative and constructive way, themed focus groups and town halls will be conducted at intervals to gather this data. For example, a diverse group of students (not just seniors) could be recruited to comment on how core courses in the degree program support their wellbeing and satisfaction as defined above. Alternatively the focus group could discuss overall departmental climate and peer/faculty relationships. Town Halls can be a much larger venue to gather the entire student body rather than small subsamples, but also would not support as much rigor in analysis.

Program-level Diversity

On the Student Level

Data should be collected and rigorously examined to ensure there is representative diversity (at least matching that of the population the institution aims to serve, i.e. the US population demographics) in all areas. The Biology department is accountable for identifying and addressing any inequities shown in the following areas:

  • which students are taking different Biology courses
  • which students declare a major in Biology
  • which students pass/drop/fail courses in Biology
  • which students leave the Biology major
  • which students perform best (according to traditional metrics of GPA) in Biology

On the Staff Level

Same as above regarding students, but instead addressing staff level concerns such as:

  • who is being hired for different roles
  • who is being compensated more or less
  • who is being recognized using institutional or departmental awards
  • who is receiving more or less perks
  • who is being promoted
  • who is in leadership roles

On the Faculty Level

Same as above regarding students, but instead addressing faculty level concerns such as:

  • who are faculty members in the Biology department
  • which faculty members are at different levels of status and promotion (i.e. tenure)
  • which faculty members are getting assigned more or less service responsibilities
  • which faculty members are getting assigned more or less teaching responsibilities
  • which faculty members are getting more institutional/departmental support
  • who is being interviewed for faculty positions in Biology
  • who is being hired for new faculty positions in Biology

Equity in Program-level Opportunities

Office Record-Keeping

As a department, it is very likely that there have been note-taking on certain involvements, including but not limited to: which individuals are involved in institutional or departmental committees, who are leaders of student groups or faculty initiatives, who is awarded internal grants or positions, who engages in different projects (e.g. research internships for students), how are people recognized and compensated for what they do. The important thing here is to ensure that no record-keeping tasks fall through the task and that the data is brought together to be studied systematically.

This effort runs in parallel with the initiative described above to examine diversity of individuals in the program. However, rather than the typical numbers that are usually collected in an HR/compliance, these numbers try to capture extra-curricular, co-curricular, or “perks” provided to some individuals but that may not be available or utilized equally by everyone in the department.


Surveys that are regularly distributed to students could include a list of extra-curricular or co-curricular opportunities that are available in the department and ask students to mark each item as:

  • I was not aware of this opportunity.
  • I was aware of this opportunity, but did not attempt to use it.
  • I was aware of this opportunity, but was unable to use it.
  • I used this opportunity.

Analogous work can be done with staff and faculty surveys.

Exit Interviews

The framework for conducting exit interviews is described above. To serve evaluation in this area, graduating students will be also asked additional questions such as:

  • Which opportunities (list examples here or provide a list) did you take advantage of in the Biology department? Which did you not use?
  • Describe why you did not use certain opportunities in the Biology department.

Courses and Sequencing

The biology department to settle on the year-round calendar of their core and linker course offerings and have students enroll based on ranking their choices for the entire year. We will implement some fair ranking/matching system so that most students at least sometimes get their favorite classes. Students must take a certain number of Core Courses and Linker Courses to complete the degree, but no single class of those mentioned below would be required. Year-to-year, depending on how many courses there are and whether new ones form, there might be a specific course that isn’t offered in a given year. However, the hope is that within the scope of an approximately two year major, students will be able to eventually take most of the courses that interest them. The expected full-time course load might be 2-3 core courses and 1-3 linker courses during a given term (quarter or semester). Ideally students could request, propose, or design either core or linker courses based on interests.

Courses, especially core courses, would be team-taught by faculty and instructors, but they also connect their students as needed to other members of the institutional community and/or local community. Courses should employ revolutionary forms of grading like contract grading, mastery or specifications grading. The final assessment for this program could be based on evaluating the senior portfolio. A final core or linker course could be offered to seniors to help put portfolio together and revise some of the weaker pieces (by revisiting old projects from past courses).

Core Courses

Core courses are 3-4 unit courses in the major offered in a rotating selection and need not be taken in any specific order. These team-based project courses aim to support students as they add to their ongoing portfolio of work during their time in the Biology major. We will encourage students to take projects and move them to summer research projects or activism projects, volunteering especially over breaks or part-time. As soon as students enter the major, the program will create a portfolio that follows them and is used in conversations with advisors on career/academic choices. In these courses, students from other disciplines will be encouraged to join (e.g. humanities, social sciences, other natural or physical sciences, engineering).

Core courses will be broken into short modules addressing the problem from a different angle or disciplinary lens or level of scale. Each module engages in short team-based projects where students make choices and design together. Courses will be supplemented by a core set of existing bite-sized videos (e.g. touching on concepts of signaling, inheritance, cell division, population dynamics, food webs) that support just-in-time learning. All courses must embrace and only use bite-sized OER materials (since no singular textbook will addresses the scope or flexibility of course content). We will also recognize and celebrate student work either through ongoing learning showcases or traditional publications. Projects and resources created by students would then become materials for the next cohort.

Examples include: Cancer, Hunger, Aging, Climate Change, Pandemics, Life in Space, Consciousness, Pain, Designing Humans, Sleep, Energy, Pregnancy and Childbirth, Life Origins, Water, Athletic Ability

Linker Courses

Linker courses (LCs, also stands for learning communities) are 1-2 unit courses intended to act as little communities of practice for students to bring tasks they are working on in the core course. This “bringing tasks” might look like a student preparing for a team presentation in the Hunger course or analyzing data they collected as part of their project in the Pandemics course. The work effort in the linker courses (e.g. “homework problems”) are entirely based on students bringing stuff from outside the class and solving/getting help on solving these during the linker course. The Significance and Uncertainty linker course would then not be about doing a traditional statistics class covering the textbook from cover to cover, but rather consulting with an instructor and each other on statistics as they work through projects in the other biology courses they are taking.

The program could give examples of series of linker courses that connect with future goals/careers (e.g. community engagement => public health, project management => biotech, automation => biology start-up), but no specific order or course is required. LCs are a matter of choice and students choosing which from the set to take based on their interest. It is another question whether they take what they are strong in vs. where they want to develop. The set of all linker courses offered in Biology would be more than they are required to take so they would not have to take each one. Students could take a linker course again depending on the pedagogy of that course to allow for “re-takeability.” Note that certain areas are not included as linker courses (e.g. ethical thinking, teamwork) because they are essential and should be integrated throughout all core courses.

Examples include:

  • Significance and Uncertainty, Data Visualizations, Prediction and Correlation, Modeling Equations, Automation, Signal and Noise, Devices and Hardware
  • Scientific Writing, Public Communication, Oral Communication, Visual Communication, Teaching, Science in Media, Web Interfaces
  • Project Management, Leadership and Mentoring, Professional Development, Design Thinking, Community Engagement, Budgets and Constraints, Public Policy
  • Senior Portfolio

Example Degree Paths

“Traditional Student” Path:

Year 1:

General education requirements, e.g. math, chemistry, biology, writing, humanities, social sciences

Year 2: 

Fall Quarter Winter Quarter Spring Quarter
General education requirements Life Origins Hunger
Public Policy Project Management
General education requirements Course in another department

Year 3:

Fall Quarter Winter Quarter Spring Quarter
Climate Change Pandemics Cancer
Sleep Energy Aging
Design Thinking Prediction and Correlation Community Engagement
Course in another department General education requirements Significance and Uncertainty

Year 4:

Fall Quarter Winter Quarter Spring Quarter
Better Humans Consciousness Pandemics*
Visual Communication Professional Development Leadership
Data Visualizations Scientific Writing Senior Portfolio
Modeling Equations* Automation Course in another department

*retake for additional learning or different focus, or take as a student leader (learning assistant) to guide new students

Department Course Totals: 11 core courses, 15 linker courses (26 courses total)

Unit Count (not counting any GE courses): 11 x 4 + 15 x 2 = 74 units

“Nontraditional Student” Path:

Year 1: 

General education requirements, e.g. math, chemistry, biology, writing, humanities, social sciences on a part-time basis

Year 2: 

Fall Quarter Winter Quarter Spring Quarter
Cancer Pain Scientific Writing
General education requirement Visual Communication General education requirement

Year 3: 

Fall Quarter Winter Quarter Spring Quarter
Life in Space Water Science in Media
General education requirement Public Policy General education requirement
Course in another department

Year 4:

Fall Quarter Winter Quarter Spring Quarter
Sleep Pandemics Consciousness
Oral Communication General education requirement Design Thinking
Course in another department

Year 5:

Fall Quarter Winter Quarter Spring Quarter
Better Humans Pregnancy and Childbirth Energy
Teaching Community Engagement Public Communication
Course in another department

Year 6:

Fall Quarter Winter Quarter Spring Quarter
Life Origins Aging Leadership and Mentoring
Budgets and Constraints Project Management Senior Portfolio
Course in another department

Department Course Totals:12 core courses, 13 linker courses (25 courses total)

Unit Count (not counting any GE courses):12 x 4 + 13 x 2 = 74 units

Reflections on Implementation

In drafting this example of a Biology degree, we aim to be aspirational and inspirational. We recognize that we present what may be such a grand divergence from the way departments have historically operated. However, we do have a few ideas for how this program may be implemented more gradually.

Demands on Instructor Time

In response to this proposed curriculum, one might wonder how these changes will affect instructor workloads. We argue that instructor time already varies immensely between instructors of different disciplines, regular course load, status, and institution types. Everyone has different priorities and the baseline expectations of a course in this model will likely not be higher than those of a course assigned to someone who is a full-time lecturer/teaching faculty. Meanwhile, those whose main association with a course is to show up and present at biweekly lectures and who is uninvolved in course design, creation of assessments, or grading, will inevitably find this model to require more work. Depending on institutional context, this model may be a bigger or smaller ask.

Course Preparation

What does it look like to prepare for one of these courses? These courses are less oriented around a single “canon” that covers each subject matter and involves a set of facts and concepts. Rather, all courses practice several key skills in the life sciences and draw on lots of sub-disciplines since biology is such a wide encompassing discipline. It is not expected that instructors know everything about their course, e.g. Sleep or Cancer from every angle. The culture of the department and its instructors should establish that expertise is not required and that “studying up” when preparing for a course is not a necessary or encouraged use of instructor time.

Instead, the instructional team should meet to review past course products (e.g. what were some aspects of what is known in each field, how they are known, and some unanswered questions) from students and past instructors. Instructors should also continue to familiarize themselves with the general model of all core courses (i.e. how they engage students in literature review or design of a scientific study) and that can transfer readily between course assignments.

The content knowledge is these proposed core courses are expected to be covered by a mixture of individual and small-group conversations with faculty and peers, connections to other experts, or pointing to a resource stored in a repository of just-in-time learning resources (i.e. JITT materials) that are built out every year. Populating this repository will take time to build out fully. The department can also choose to award stipend or course release for instructors (e.g. faculty, lecturers, outstanding students) who devote time to developing additional resources (e.g. finding or creating readings, videos, podcasts) as a way to build tools for everyone’s benefit.

The culture of sharing teaching materials can vary widely between individuals, single courses, departments, and institutions. Establishing a more open culture is key to supporting instructors such that they share, reuse, innovate, and re-share. Thus, the department should hold crucial conversations during open faculty meetings and/or faculty retreats and establish guidelines for sharing. By involving all instructors, the group can determine how to protect against downsides or penalties for sharing, or how to create reward and recognition for sharing that then addresses everyone’s concerns and needs.

Synchronous Course Time

Course time will still be based on the same system of assigning units, but instead the time will be used for very different formats of teaching more akin to tutoring and active learning. Thus, the overall hours will look the same for instructors with the exception of some additional time given to larger teaching team meetings (see the subsection on Coordination below).

On a regular basis, the activities of a teaching instructor might look differently as follows:

Instruction Model Monday (Class 1) Tuesday Wednesday (Class 2) Thursday Friday
Lecture-Based Intro Course Give 50 min lecture on course concepts (e.g. Mendelian genetics principles) with some time dedicated to Q&A Create or revise slides, prep and rehearse lecture for Wednesday Similar to Monday Revise slides and rehearse lecture for next week based on how much content was covered Grade problem sets and/or work on designing the next exam
Active Learning Intro Course Give 20 min mini-lecture (e.g. Mendelian genetics) with time for 15-20 min group activity (e.g. solving different pedigrees and Punnett squares) followed by whole class debrief and a small group discussion Create or revise slides, prep and rehearse mini-lecture for Wednesday, create or revise handout for group activity Similar to Monday Revise in-class activities for next week based on student learning and obstacles  Read student reflections and provide comments, grade problem sets
Core Course in Curriculum Give 5-10 min of announcements and describing upcoming milestones, allow 15-20 min of team project work with faculty checking in, whole class discussion of confusing concepts or barriers Respond to student team questions and post links to related JITT resources, schedule feedback Give 5 min of updates, break into meta-groups with student teams and do peer review of project milestones for 15-20 min, engage in chalk talks on team projects  Meet with teaching team to debrief the week, talk about team project concerns, and plan for next week Review assigned team project milestones using rubric and send rubric comments with links to resources to teams

See the below section on ideas for implementation around grading, another element that tends to take a substantial amount of instructor time.


A key challenge here is coordinating with the members of the instructional team (e.g. faculty, teaching assistants or TAs, peer mentors) and all “moving parts” in this system. One way this challenge could be addressed is by creating shorter, modular units in advance that are shared department-wide and can be a starting point that provides structure for all planning (i.e. who will do what). Moreover, one key expectation of all instructors will be a weekly teaching team meeting to review how the week is going and what will happen in the next week.

Another way to address this challenge will be explicit structure of roles that are created at the department level and used across all courses. This measure might include appointing a lead faculty member who is a point contact for the department and at larger faculty meetings, and appointing a lead TA or peer mentor who represents that team in some conversations with faculty.

Systems of Grading

New grading systems could best support this new system and tie into much existing research that suggests that using external factors such as grades actually diminishes intrinsic student motivation to learn. We propose departments that move towards this curricular model might consider labor-based grading contracts, specifications grading, mastery grading, or abolishment of course-level grading altogether.

One example of implementation using labor-based contract grading could establish that every major team-based project milestone is either a Credit/No Credit/Not Yet where Not Yet means they are close and must revise to then receive credit. Each item could then be assessed using a rubric that is developed per assignment and inherited between course iterations.

This manifesto and this example best aligns with models where there is no single grade at the end of a course. Each assignment could be tagged based on where students are supported in learning a particular competency, engaged in practice of this competency, and assessed on this competency. Scores could then be given to a set of competencies within a course for each student rather than a single student grade on the course itself. This system is a much more complicated grading scheme at the registrar’s level, but there are lots of established computer systems that do this well already and could be modified for such a task.

One key benefit fo these changes in grading systems are that they can be lower effort/time spent on the particulars of percentages or points, and all time spent on grading feeds in naturally to feedback. Arguing between a 91% or a 93% is no longer a time sink. Instead, the instructional team works together to assign reviewers to each project and create feedback sheets for each student team. In this way, much of the work resembles that of a grant review session or other types of faculty work at certain institutions.

Pedagogical Training

The pedagogical training to prepare faculty to offer these courses may seem substantial but it helps to partner with other experts around the institution and to ease faculty into new practices over time. Here are a couple areas that are relevant:

  • active learning
  • using rubrics
  • coaching models of instruction
  • backwards design
  • interdisciplinary teaching
  • metacognitive practices

For example, one would need to model for faculty how they can make courses more modular in order to support broken down outcomes such as learning objectives from larger learning goals. Many experts in these areas can be identified in different institutions, whether that be a Center for Teaching and Learning staff member who can consult on these matters, or a faculty member in the Writing and Rhetoric Department who is practiced in using rubrics.

For some instructors and contexts, the coaching model will closely resemble their relationship with students as a research advisor. A faculty member who works with master’s students or doctoral students on their research projects will use similar patterns of mentoring for these project teams since many graduate students do reviews of the state of research, design projects, and needs to exercise good communication of their research through writing and presentations.

Extensive work would need to be done to help faculty learn to promote integration of knowledge outside of a strictly siloed disciplinary structure. Lots of work already exists on the pedagogy of using e-portfolios and reflection in courses that supports students in weaving together content knowledge, skills, and development.

Student Enrollment and Course Staffing 

The above proposed model would be difficult if not impossible to realize if the department has a model of offering large lecture courses staffed by a single faculty member leading over 200 students, armed with anywhere from no TAs to a small army of TAs. Many of these courses balance a large-enrollment lecture that meets 2-4 hours a week with a smaller recitation section of between 15-30 students. Alternatively, this smaller section may be a lab section depending on the requirements that this course meets. This pattern is not only common at large enrollment schools (e.g. the public California State University system), but also in other institutions where an introductory level course may be part of the general education requirement (e.g. intro biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Often these staffing models have the TAs required to sit in and watch what happens in lecture to inform how they run recitations.

In our curricular design, the lack of prerequisites and course sequencing aim to balance out students among all available core courses during each term. The fundamental unit of enrollment for core courses would be considered to be a team of size 4. Thus, a typical small-enrollment course of 32 would have about 8 teams and a large-enrollment course of 80 might have up to 20 teams. In the typical enrollment of 32, the eight student teams would be mentored by two faculty and between two to six TAs or PMs who could mentor 1-2 teams each. A cap of 80 for any given course would be proposed such that a nested teaching team structure could reasonably cover all students: a team of ten TAs or PMs would mentor two teams each and up to five TAs would report to one of two faculty members leading the course.

Rather than viewing course load as solely a function of hours and number of sections, we instead advocate for looking at the number of student teams as well since in a coaching model, the instructors work would scale with the number of teams they are overseeing. Coaching instead of teaching (as is often interpreted in academia) works when interested and experienced individuals are available to help students in their project-oriented activities. These individuals guide students towards their own personalized learning that can be done outside of the physical classroom and leverage multiple asynchronous materials.

Data Collection and Analysis

In many cases, infrastructure that allows for systematic data collection from students exist and data can be tracked once the institution and/or department commits to a system of creating reports and ways of looking into the data. Students are generally tagged with multiple demographic information and course information on the registrar level that could be better investigated through a partnership with the registrar. Many institutions have institutional research personnel or offices that will administer school-wide surveys and exit interviews, that could be a major guiding force in creating department-specific surveys and automating the analysis. Such information could be organized by administration and student services professionals and presented to faculty once they are sufficiently de-identified. In today’s era, we are experiencing a data deluge and just some extra effort and transparency can establish how to use these data regularly in departmental decisions.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #1935479: Workshop on the Substance of STEM Education. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.