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STEM Education for the 21st Century

Bryan Penprase
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Frédéric Morneau-Guérin
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This book is the result of an odyssey that led Bryan Edward Penprase around the world to visit more than fifty higher education institutions and many centers for online education like Udacity and Coursera. During his travels, the astrophysicist and current Dean of Faculty for the Undergraduate Program at Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, CA, met with the presidents, provosts, deans, principals and professors who are shaping what Penprase calls the ”new era” in STEM teaching.
Although the author says his book is geared toward the general public, his set of arguments will mainly appeal to the faculty members interested in taking a fast-paced look at the latest developments in teaching and learning STEM in leading universities.
The book begins with a historical account of higher education in the United States. The focus is put on the issue of diversity in American higher education from colonial times to the 21st century. The author argues that, while an affirmation of the principle of equal opportunity is present, the meritocratic educational concept has not achieved the desired results in terms of equal outcomes for students of all ethnic and racial groups, particularly in STEM areas where “the levels of enrollment, degree completion and persistence through graduate programs are all lower for non-white students and women (p. 1)”. Penprase then argues that greater inclusion of all socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and gender categories in STEM education would be both urgently necessary and hugely important. According to the author, this would be a crucial phase in the long American history of advancing social mobility through access to higher education.
The second chapter presents a detailed study of active learning techniques developed by leading STEM education innovators such as Eric Mazur and Carl Wieman, the Nobel laureate in Physics.  The third chapter provides an overview of the classic theories of learning.  Among other things, the author presents the theories developed by Piaget, Dewey, Vygotsky, and Belenky. Given the author’s obvious interest in Carl Wieman’s work, it is surprising how little attention is given to Baddeley’s model of working memory and the cognitive load theory.
One of the main hypotheses defended in this book is that the teaching of science must be as faithful as possible to the true nature of science. According to Penprase, ”the magic of discovery (p. 37)” should be brought to the classroom.  Considering the enthusiasm with which the author approaches the subject of equity and inclusion at the beginning of the book, it is surprising that he does not focus more on the widening of the performance gap that can result from teaching based on such a less directed approach. There is little mention, in fact, of the overwhelming and unambiguous evidence accumulated over the last half-century of empirical research demonstrating that more qualified learners tend to learn more with less guided teaching, but that less qualified learners tend to learn more when the teacher provides explicit advice (through various media such as formal teaching (lecture) sequences, modeling, videos, computer presentations, and realistic demonstrations) accompanied by practice and feedback.
The main contribution of this book lies less in its attempt to reinvigorate the debate on learning through discovery than in its detailed description of how faculties around the world are preparing to meet the challenge of promoting, fostering, and facilitating interdisciplinarity in research and teaching.
Frédéric Morneau-Guérin is a professor in the Department of Education at Université TÉLUQ. He holds a Ph.D. in abstract harmonic analysis.