What Should Undergraduate Education Look Like in 2040?

While I was at NSF, a program officer in the Division of Undergraduate Education (Myles Boylan) requested my input on a proposal from SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities).

I was excited to see that this program was founded on aspects of informal learning, creating college courses based on civic engagement that focus on real world topics relevant to students. (See articles below.)

After leaving NSF, I served as an advisor to SENCER and more closely followed developments in higher education. As a result, I was intrigued by the Imagining the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education Symposium organized by the National Academies in 2020. To stimulate discussion, an Idea Competition was launched in advance to seek innovative visions for 2040 and beyond. I took the opportunity to submit an entry, building on the affordances offered by informal learning and by SENCER.

My entry took the form of a memo written in 2040 for a hypothetical “Personalized Undergraduate & Lifelong Learning STEM Center,” summarizing its genesis and approach. The first letters of its name reflect the “pull” of learning derived from intrinsic motivation driven by student interest rather than the traditional “push” of instructor-driven education.

It also drew upon my experience as Assistant Professor at Hostos Community College of CUNY in the South Bronx, a position I took right after getting my Ph.D from MIT. This non-traditional bilingual college introduced me to mastery-based learning, then also referred to as the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) or Keller Plan, after Fred Keller, a psychologist who taught at Columbia using this approach. The system is based on students working at their own pace to demonstrate understanding of measurable learning objectives. Using the technology of the time (slides synched to audio-casette tape narration), I created a series of self-instructional modules to help students master problem-solving in chemistry. With the advent of computers and AI, mastery-based learning, now often characterized as competency-based learning, is seeing a resurgence of interest.

Teaching at Antioch College further influenced my proposed vision. As an integral part of their studies, students went off-campus for a series of coop jobs (some with higher pay than mine!). I recognized the value of immersing students in authentic work settings, the importance of which was later reinforced by seeing the potential impact of the community focus of SENCER courses and of learning ecosystems more broadly.

Developing a vision, however, is relatively easy compared with implementation under the constraints faced today by colleges and universities. Some have been trying one or more of these approaches piecemeal. It remains to be seen whether any institution can or will attempt experimenting with a more comprehensive transformation of undergraduate education.

My submission, which received an honorable mention, was one of the few not submitted by higher education faculty.


Ucko, D. A. (2021). Transforming undergraduate STEM education. Informal Learning Review 165(Jan/Feb), 22-24.

Bell, L. & Ucko, D. A. (2018). Civic engagement and informal science education. Science Education & Civic Engagement, 10(1), 5-13. http://new.seceij.net/articletype/teaching-andlearning/civic-engagement-and-informal-science-education/

Semmel, M., & Ucko, D. A. (2017). Building communities of transformation: SENCER and SENCER-ISE. Informal Learning Review, 146(Sept/Oct), 3-7.

Ucko, D. A. (2015). SENCER synergies with informal learning. Science Education & Civic Engagement, 7(2), 16-19. http://new.seceij.net/articletype/pov/sencer-synergies-withinformal-learning/

Ucko, D. A. (1974). Keller revisited. [Abstract]. Journal of College Science Teaching, 3(4), https://www.jstor.org/stable/42965351

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