There is a national interest in improving the quality of STEM education in institutions of higher education. One goal of multiple initiatives focusing on such improvement is empowering more STEM educators to implement evidence-based instructional practices, that research has shown best help students learn. Related strategies target change in STEM faculty members’ teaching-related beliefs/knowledge via various tactics, such as faculty learning communities, wherein faculty collaboratively learn about teaching and find support for making teaching improvements. Although research has suggested that engaging faculty in such learning communities helps STEM faculty explore instructional improvements, little is known about how STEM faculty engage in teaching-related conversations (core to the success of learning communities), including their rationales for engagement and with whom they engage. Furthermore, little is known about how institution-wide instructional improvement opportunities, particularly those using the strategy of creating faculty communities, affect STEM faculty members’ conversations around teaching-related topics. An additional consideration for instructional improvement efforts is the professional identities of STEM faculty, or generally how STEM faculty see themselves in light of professional norms and values. Researchers have suggested that the professional identities of STEM faculty have the potential to be shaped by (as well as shape) STEM faculty members’ engagement in instructional improvement efforts. That said, too little research has investigated how engagement in different types of instructional improvement opportunities interact with STEM faculty members’ professional identities, including practitioner inquiry groups, one type of faculty learning community wherein faculty collect and analyze data to inform instructional changes. Research is particularly lacking that investigates how fixed-term faculty (i.e., non-tenure track) experience practitioner inquiry in light of their professional identity. This dissertation attends to these research interests by exploring: 1) how STEM faculty engage in teaching-related conversations at an institution of higher education in light of a pedagogical improvement initiative, and 2) how STEM faculty experience practitioner inquiry in light of their professional identities.
The results of these studies offer insight about how working at an institution of higher education influences the experiences of STEM faculty engaged in instructional improvements. Together, both studies illuminate the efforts of STEM faculty who, despite numerous barriers, make efforts to engage in instructional improvement opportunities. In particular, these studies draw attention to the importance of creating safe and inclusive spaces for faculty to collaboratively learn about teaching-related topics of their interest and of relevance to their educative realities. Furthermore, the studies point to the important role administrators play, who have greater positional power than most STEM faculty, in helping to foster and sustain improvement endeavors and faculty learning communities. The results and implications from these studies are important, towards informing ways to provide STEM faculty with meaningful opportunities to learn about instructional improvements to better help students engaged in STEM coursework succeed.