Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Science Education, Mallinson Institute

First Advisor

Dr. Charles Henderson

Second Advisor

Dr. Heather Petcovic

Third Advisor

Dr. Marcia Fetters


A critical problem in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is the slow uptake of innovative teaching strategies and materials. Developments from the STEM education research community can be shown to improve learning and retention outcomes, but the majority of new teaching strategies go unused by instructors. This problem is increasingly acknowledged by funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, which now calls for “transferability and propagation” to be addressed throughout a project’s lifetime in the request for proposals. However, few publications synthesize what is known about propagating innovations into usable, actionable recommendations for developers in the context of STEM education. The overall goal of this work is to help understand how to improve adoption/adaptation of evidence-based educational innovations from the standpoint of innovation developers. This study uses a grounded theory design, building theory about a process, “grounded” in the data (Creswell, 2007; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The study has three main components: constructing a “baseline” understanding of typical propagation practice, understanding highly successful practice, and refining the initial theory with more targeted investigations of successful practice. Data is analyzed continually comparing and elaborating on prior analysis through the constant comparative method. Typical practice is studied through qualitative survey results from over 1200 NSF principal investigators, and through focus group data with the eight disciplinary groups of NSF program directors of (what was) the Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM program. Successful practice is studied through identifying and broadly characterizing 41 successful innovations, then delving into detailed case studies of three of those (Peer-Led Team Learning, Peer Instruction, and the PhET Interactive Simulations.) The final refinement phase builds on the model through 11 additional cases. Interactivity with potential adopters at all stages of the project underlies the success of well-propagated innovations: for example, gaining feedback from users early in the project and having active collaborations, using dissemination mechanisms such as immersive workshops, and personally answering questions when adopters are implementing the innovation. This study fills an important gap in the literature on change in STEM education, providing developers of education innovations with recommendations to plan for propagation.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access