Why Theories of Change Matter

WCER Working Paper No. 2015-02

Mark R. Connolly and Elaine Seymour

July 2015, 17 pp.

ABSTRACT: In 2009, a pair of meetings launched an ambitious initiative to link communities engaged in improving STEM education with those engaged in global sustainability. The organizers of the initiative, "Mobilizing STEM Education for a Sustainable Future" (details of which may be found at http://mobilizingstem.wceruw.org/), selected "critical advisors" to attend the meetings and guide discussion. These critical advisors, with expertise in relevant domains in higher education, such as professional development for faculty, curricula development, and policy and practice, were asked to propose new or adapted theories of change that can accomplish a vision for higher education. In this paper, therefore, we review theories of change already used in efforts to improve quality and access in STEM education. We consider why some STEM reform efforts based on particular theories of change (whether implicit or stated) may be more or less successful than others. To this end, this paper argues that theories of change are powerful yet often unacknowledged guides for human action for change. We first explain what a theory of change is. Then we present our findings from a preliminary study of theories of change inferred from a small sample of projects that the National Science Foundation solicited and subsequently funded to improve STEM education. We conclude by discussing the implications of unarticulated theories of change for the nation's efforts to improve STEM education. (NOTE: this WCER working paper is a version of a 2009 paper resulting from the Mobilizing STEM Education for a Sustainable Future initiative.)

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keywords: Theories of change, STEM education, project design.