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Debra Satz
Richard Morgenstein

Spring 2022 H&S E-Newsletter for Faculty and Staff

May 20, 2022

Reimagining Education

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

—Attributed to William Butler Yeats

One of the most important things we do as faculty, even at a research university like Stanford, is to teach. In teaching, we not only influence our own students, but we also have ripple effects that spread out into society and culture and influence the lives of others. Our students become inventors, journalists, teachers, medical and legal professionals, corporate leaders, and members of government. They go on to be informed citizens, content experts in their fields, artists, and members of nonprofit organizations; their passion and knowledge can serve the common good. At the same time, our students also influence our own research and teaching, asking new questions and giving new answers to old questions.

While we have many great teachers on our faculty, when I became dean I thought that we could do more to support faculty teaching. We now require all new assistant professors to participate in the Course Design Institute (a.k.a. “teaching boot camp”) run through the Center for Teaching and Learning, as well as to be assigned “teaching mentors” by their departments. Teaching is a skill that needs to be nurtured and perfected. My focus was on helping individual faculty. But I am pleased to see many departments now taking a much more systematic look at teaching in their disciplines.

I also want to direct our attention to an initiative on science teaching led by Professor Mary Beth Mudgett, senior associate dean for educational initiatives and professor of biology. H&S focused on introductory science teaching for two primary reasons: 1) Our undergraduate students increasingly come from different backgrounds, and some have not been adequately prepared in high school for college-level STEM courses; 2) as a result, these students face greater obstacles to participating and succeeding in STEM majors. We want every Stanford student to have a fair opportunity to succeed in any major at Stanford.

As an inspiring case study of what is possible, the Department of Mathematics has done considerable work on their curriculum. As a prerequisite, math plays a crucial role in training students for different STEM majors, and it is also the second-largest major in the natural sciences cluster. The math department wanted to evaluate the appropriateness of their introductory courses and their content, simplify access, incorporate inclusive teaching, and better assess learning outcomes.

In rethinking introductory math classes, Professor Brian Conrad, director of undergraduate studies in mathematics, met with different departments to find out what they want their majors to know. The department also thought about how to make math engaging for all students. One outcome of Brian’s listening tour and department discussions was that seven math faculty decided to plan and write their own textbook for Math 51 and, subsequently, Math 53.

Implemented in 2018, the Math 51 textbook is free to students (and anyone with a SUNet ID). The textbook is a living document that evolves and can be continually updated. Math 51 enrollment has increased 100 percent in the past five years, and The Stanford Daily published two positive stories about the course (“In Defense of MATH 51” and  “MATH 51 grades improve after new textbook, syllabus introduced in fall 2018”)! In fall 2021, the textbook for Math 53 was released.

Of course, it isn’t enough to update the existing curriculum if we want to ensure equitable access. The math department, led by Professor Rafe Mazzeo, created the SOAR (Stanford Online Academic Resources) program in 2019, which offers a free five-week online summer math course to incoming frosh. In this summer bridge program, students earn 1 unit of credit toward their fall course load. And, in 2020, an online writing program was added to SOAR.

Other departmental efforts are underway, and I am encouraged and appreciative of the reflection, discussion, and hard work of so many of our wonderful colleagues. As teachers, to quote Henry Adams, we “affect eternity” because we never know where or whether our influence ends.

All my best,

Debra

Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science