STEM at Cal State East Bay: A conversation with Provost James Houpis

  • November 1, 2010

In my talks with our four college deans and the University Librarian about how science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is becoming an increasingly integral part of our curricula — across the University — I was heartened to hear several themes recur. These included the necessity of quantitative literacy, the rejection of outdated educational models and the importance of STEM to informed citizenship.

Several of those same themes came up this month, as well, as I discussed our STEM education initiative with Provost James Houpis, who joined Cal State East Bay in March. At the start of our conversation, he mentioned that he found the University’s STEM education vision and its potential to redefine higher education as one of the compelling reasons behind his decision to join the University.

Over the past six months, Provost Houpis —whose own background is in environmental sciences and ecology — has sat in and observed this series of conversations with each of the deans. His goal was to learn more about how different areas of the university are becoming more STEM-centered and also to identify areas of opportunity for collaboration and expansion.

The STEM learning ecosystem

Provost Houpis has many years of experience in academia as a faculty member and an administrator, and from that perspective, he understands that an undertaking like our STEM education initiative introduces both change and uncertainty. “To call yourself a STEM university is in vogue now,” he said. “But most universities will not ‘walk the walk,’ because it means they really have to reformulate how they do business.”

He and I both know how difficult changes such as this can be for academic institutions, which have long held to more traditional methods. But, as he pointed out, “Cal State East Bay is clearly able to walk the walk. It’s one of the reasons I chose to come here as provost.”

Despite the newness of our STEM initiative, I find Provost Houpis’s assessment of our community particularly encouraging. Community members have been supportive and eager to integrate STEM education into the curriculum. This is the reason we think it will be possible for CSUEB to show real results where other institutions cannot. We have been able to develop the right environment— a “learning ecosystem.”

The term “ecosystem” was coined in 1936, by Arthur Tansley, who used it to define a system of interacting biological components and the environment in which they live. It’s an appropriate reference for our STEM education initiative, which is changing the dynamics of teaching and learning at Cal State East Bay in response to the changing needs of our students and society in the 21st century.

Though it is not the traditional approach for higher education, Provost Houpis and I believe the ecosystem model is the right one for the future. A responsive learning ecosystem produces more effective and efficient outcomes, tapping into all available resources to find solutions. “Ideally this is what universities should do — focus on helping society solve the most critical and daunting problems and realize its full potential by creating an environment where imagination can flourish,” the provost said.

As the STEM-centered learning ecosystem we envision evolves — as we shift our finite physical resources, and look to the limitless resource of imagination and innovation to open up new possibilities and directions — we will see material change and improvement in teaching and learning outcomes and in society.

More on STEM & society

As we discussed the role of STEM disciplines in daily life and society, Provost Houpis and I both recalled the space race of the 1960s that created NASA and put humans on the moon. We were struck by the way scientific and technological advances were once so important to the American people, whereas today they are much more politically marginalized.

Provost Houpis points out that going into space “wasn’t only important to rocket scientists, it was important to all of society.” The entire country embraced this one audacious goal, to reach the stars. The result was American technological supremacy, fueling our economy, and advancing our concerns about the environment and civil rights, all of which helped us achieve a world leadership position for the next half-century. In other words, the challenge was emblematic of far more than space travel; it represented the infinite possibilities and almost unimaginable benefits of human imagination and innovation given the broadest societal support. The provost and I feel that STEM will need the same national backing and enthusiasm to ensure our future competitiveness and leadership as a global superpower.

Even though it is not well reflected in media, popular culture, politics or education, both the Provost and I believe there is, in fact, an abiding public interest in science. “I think the average person does very much want to know the real life impact of science and technology,” Provost Houpis said. Whether discussing medicine, energy solutions, global warming or entertainment, science and technology affect every day life in ways that are compelling and important to all people.

Moreover— as you heard Dean Leung of Science and Dean Rountree of CLASS express as well — graduates lacking STEM reasoning skills and technical fluency will be not only deeply disadvantaged in the workplace, but also unable to contribute to their communities as well informed, engaged citizens. Thus, how technically fluent and scientifically educated we are as a society has enormous implications for our success both as professionals and as citizens.

The STEM journey

In wrapping up our conversation, the Provost and I agreed that being a STEM-centered university is not a destination, but rather a journey. And it is a journey that Cal State East has already embarked upon. We are not heading for a specific, knowable conclusion, but are moving instead in a particular direction — one that builds on the university’s established strengths, existing programs and long-held values.

“There were many important building blocks already in place,” the Provost noted. And as we have heard from the deans of our four colleges, CSUEB has been seeing enrollment growth in technological and creative fields and disciplines, and many programs were already moving to incorporate technology and quantitative reasoning across the curriculum. We’ve been developing innovative partnerships between teachers and scientists, rapidly growing our online campus, and adding new programs to encourage students in our pipeline to consider careers in the fast-growing STEM disciplines.

When we think of STEM education in terms of broadening student access to both higher education and the economy of tomorrow, CSUEB was already well down that road as well. Commenting on the university’s incredible diversity, Provost Houpis said, “Students come to college and want to see other students like them. CSUEB clearly demonstrates to underrepresented students that they can see themselves in STEM fields.”

In the College of Science, more than 75 percent of students are students of color; more than 50 percent of the students in CBE, CLASS and CEAS are from underrepresented communities. Our students and alumni from all backgrounds are finding success in STEM fields.

Walking the Walk

As the provost noted early in our conversation, the university community is obviously ready to ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to STEM education, and clearly sees the need for change in higher education. “STEM is taking hold as a concept horizontally and vertically,” Provost Houpis noted.  “In the conversations with the deans, they were looking at STEM education through different lenses, yet all addressing the same issues.”

The issues we are addressing are the same ones CSUEB has always sought to address: the workforce needs of our region, access to opportunity for our students and inclusive academic excellence. STEM education is the right approach to address those issues today, and the university is very fortunate to have the right people in the right positions at the right time to drive this initiative. And of course as the provost said: “We have phenomenal faculty with 110 percent commitment. You can’t buy commitment like that.”

As he and I noted earlier, it is the unique environment of Cal State East Bay — our learning ecosystem, faculty, staff, students and alumni —that makes it possible for us to “walk the walk” when it comes to STEM education. Unlike institutions that cling to tradition, we are not only committed and prepared, but also well positioned to take on this change.

I thank Provost Houpis for embracing STEM education at Cal State East Bay so quickly and holistically. As the university’s chief academic officer, he will be one of the key voices guiding our journey as the initiative grows and we develop specific programs, centers and buildings.

Next month, this series will conclude with some final thoughts on the ways we have begun to see Cal State East Bay as a STEM-centered university and how to continue this conversation in 2011.

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California State University, East Bay is the San Francisco East Bay Area's high-access public university of choice. CSUEB serves the region with campuses in Hayward and Concord, a professional development center in Oakland, and an innovative online campus. With an enrollment of more than 14,000, the University offers a nationally recognized freshman year experience, award-winning curriculum, personalized instruction, and expert faculty. Students choose from among more than 100 professionally focused fields of study for which the University confers bachelor's and master's degrees, as well as an Ed.D. in education. Named a "Best in the West" college, as well as a Best Business School, by the influential Princeton Review, Cal State East Bay is among the region's foremost producers of teachers, business professionals and entrepreneurs, public administrators, health professionals, literary and performing artists, and science and math graduates.

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