Internal Report on Problem Solving Session Insights


The information in this instructional resource comes from a culmination of three academic years of research experiences in introductory STEM courses at Brown University. Each section answers a question about a particular aspect of designing a course to include problem solving sessions with insights from the STEM education literature as well as instructors at Brown. Problem solving sessions are course meetings that focus on discussion, teamwork, and challenging STEM students to reach their academic potential in a supportive, facilitated environment. During the average problem solving session, ~20 students work through a session activity packet consisting of ~5 conceptual, context-rich problems that encourage conversation and exploration in teams, while ~2 facilitators circulate the room to answer questions and provide targeted guidance to help students persist through challenging material. Instructors at Brown have incorporated problem solving sessions both as replacements for standard recitation/ conference/discussion sections and as optional additions to the existing structure of their courses. In either case, problem solving sessions provide an invaluable opportunity for students to build self-confidence and a sense of community as they develop as scientists at Brown.

Brown University Research Matters! 2016 Video Presentation


Kyle Trenshaw talks about ways to create an inclusive climate in STEM education and the importance of collaborative learning in a talk titled, “Seeing Yourself as a Scientist: A Matter of Time and Space.” Trenshaw is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in STEM Education at Brown University. This talk was part of Research Matters!, featuring short talks about research by Brown University Graduate Students and Postdocs on November 5, 2016.

Trenshaw, K. F. (2016, November). Seeing yourself as a scientist: A matter of time and space. Live recording presented for Research Matters! 2016 at Brown University, Providence, RI.

Closing the Achievement Gap in STEM: A Two-Year Reform Effort at Brown University​


Undergraduate attrition from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields remains a problem despite decades of research and education reform efforts to improve the STEM student experience. This study is one piece of a multifaceted STEM reform effort built on the hypothesis that more students will persist in learning environments that include evidence-based practices that expand subject comprehension and improve student satisfaction. At Brown University, four physical science departments worked together over two academic years to implement evidence-based practices in eight different large, introductory STEM courses. This study focuses on the subset of those courses in which both students’ participation in voluntary collaborative learning experiences was tracked and students’ pre-course preparation was assessed using course-specific cognitive measures. In these courses, the more often students participated in collaborative learning experiences, the more their performance improved compared to their precourse preparation. Further, participation in collaborative learning experiences was found to disproportionately benefit the performance of female students and students from historically underrepresented groups (HUGs). Based on these outcomes, this study suggests that implementing evidence-based practices such as collaborative learning in introductory STEM courses can help to close the achievement gap for women and HUGs.

Trenshaw, K. F., Targan, D. M., & Valles, J. M. (2016). Closing the Achievement Gap in STEM: A Two-Year Reform Effort at Brown University. Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education 2016 Northeast Section Conference, Kingston, RI.

2015 AAU STEM Network Conference Poster


During the 2013-2014 academic year, Brown’s AAU-supported project team introduced evidence-based, high impact practices in first and second year courses in three STEM departments. To begin, we addressed the issue of math competency among STEM majors at Brown in order to ensure that all STEM majors are prepared to take advantage of the interdisciplinary- and research-based opportunities developed over the remainder of this project, beginning with the Departments of Chemistry, Physics, and Applied Mathematics. STEM faculty led the course reform, with direct input from the trained graduate students and staff at Brown’s nationally known Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. Collaborative problem solving sessions with scaffolded practice of mathematics concepts were incorporated into one introductory course in each of the involved departments. STEM students mathematics competency was assessed using concept inventories developed specifically for each course. Continuing into the 2014-2015 academic year, we foresee a number of outcomes of the AAUsupported project that will effect lasting change to individual faculty members, to STEM departments, and to Brown’s culture. Faculty in STEM departments will see an improvement in student’s interest in and understanding of STEM fields, with tangible benefits not only to student retention but also to student excitement about scientific discovery.

Trenshaw, K. F., Targan, D., & Valles, J. (2015, October). A STEM Community of Practice @ Brown University. Poster presented at the 2015 AAU STEM Network Conference, St. Louis, MO.

2014 AAU STEM Network Conference Poster

Trenshaw, K. F., Takayama, K., Targan, D., Valles, J. (2014, July). Community and collaborations: STEM reform @ Brown. Poster presented at the 2014 AAU STEM Initiative Conference, Washington, DC.