Departmental Action Teams

Departmental Action Teams

  • Overview:

    A Departmental Action Team (DAT) is an externally-facilitated working group of 4 to 8 faculty, staff, and/or students, created by a department, to achieve two goals:

    Departmental Action Team (DAT) Goals

    1. to create sustainable change around a broad-scale issue related to undergraduate education in the department by shifting departmental structures and culture
    2. to help DAT participants become change agents through developing facilitation and leadership skills

    Thus, DATs support their participants not only in making meaningful, positive change in their department, but also in developing their own capacity to continue leading change in the future.

    To meet these goals, the DAT is supported by external facilitators from our project team who have expertise in undergraduate education generally, facilitation, organizational culture, education research and instructional design particularly.

    Additionally, a core feature of DATs is that participants choose their DAT's focus; in the past, these have included both curricular concerns (e.g., restructuring a course sequence) and cultural concerns (e.g., improving undergraduate sense of belonging).

    Because the DAT project follows an action research paradigm, it has two main components.

    The DAT project Action Research Paradigm

    1. Implementing and institutionalizing DATs on the CSU campus in conjunction with an array of campus partners including The Institute for Learning and Teaching (where we are housed), the Provost office, and the Office of Student Affairs.
    2. Researching the DAT implementation and institutionalization process and externalizing our findings.

    Both components are driven by a set of core principles that guide the work of our project team.

    View the joint CU Boulder/CSU Departmental Action Team Project

  • Implementation


    A Departmental Action Team (DAT) is a new type of departmentally-based working group that aims to sustainably improve undergraduate education across the CU and CSU campuses while simultaneously developing the DAT participants' capacity to lead future change.

    DAT participants identify an educational issue of broad-scale importance in their department, with the aim of making sustainable changes through the creation of new structures or processes to address educational needs on an ongoing basis and through shifting departmental culture with respect to teaching.

    DATs are externally facilitated by members of our project team. The facilitators support the participants both in implementing the DAT activities and and by helping DAT members develop skills that will help them successfully lead other change efforts without the support of our team.

    For more information, check out the sections below or view our DAT 1-Page Project Overview.


    DATs address a persistent challenge in educational reform: despite significant investments of time and resources, educational "problems" rarely "stay solved" on their own. This can be true for a number of reasons: a reform tied to a particular person is likely to decay in the absence of that person, a reform that is at odds with the dominant culture is likely to be resisted, a reform that cannot adapt to changing circumstances runs the risk of becoming obsolete or turning into a new problem itself. Moreover, typical approaches to supporting change in departments have focused on working with individual faculty members and/or courses, without regard to the departmental context in which these people and courses are embedded.

    The DAT model is rooted in the idea that the locus of change in academia is the department, rather than the individual, and that changes must attend to issues such as sustainability, culture, and continuous improvement from the outset. Thus, rather than simply "solving a problem," a DAT aims to create new structures and processes in a department so that positive changes do not atrophy over time and so that it will be easier for the department to make further improvements down the road. Additionally, DATs think explicitly about departmental culture when planning and implementing their changes. In fact, part of the DAT’s work may involve facilitating a cultural shift within the department to support the achievement of the goals that motivated the creation of the DAT in the first place.

    These are ambitious goals, but our team's work is supported by an in-depth study of the literature on organizational change, which has a long history of understanding and supporting change in mostly business settings. Part of our research is adapting the lessons from this body of literature to the context of higher education.

    Structure and Facilitation

    A DAT consists of a self-selected group of about 4 to 8 faculty members, students, and/or staff, ideally representing various constituencies within the department (e.g., both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, both undergraduate and graduate students). The focus of the DAT is typically chosen by participants after the DATs formation, based on their own shared interests and their understanding of the needs of their department. Thus, DAT participants should have agency over both their participation in the DAT and the work that the DAT engages in.

    Participants meet regularly for sixty to ninety minutes every two weeks for two or more semesters. Between meetings, participants assign their own "homework," determining what needs to be done and how much time they will commit to it. Participants also decide whether or not they would like to schedule additional meetings during particularly critical periods of the DAT's work.

    DAT participation is incentivized in various ways. For faculty and staff, department chairs typically agree to count participation in the DAT towards service credit for faculty and as part of performance reviews for staff. Additionally, our grant provides funding for stipends for students participating in the DAT and snacks for everyone at DAT meetings.

    External facilitators play critical roles in the DAT. These facilitators bring expertise in educational research, institutional change, and supporting collaborative groups. Their primary goal is to create an environment in which DAT participants are likely to achieve success at their chosen goal by focusing on the DAT's process in addition to its content. In practice, this means doing things like keeping the group organized, helping the group create a shared vision and set concrete outcomes, asking for appropriately-interpreted evidence (not anecdotal) to guide decision-making, highlighting early wins, attending to power imbalances and interpersonal tensions, and introducing conversational tools and collaborative norms to help the group function effectively. Because it is not sustainable for a member of our team to work with one department indefinitely, an explicit focus on process serves the additional function of teaching DAT participants new skills that they can use in other contexts in their department, thus increasing the department"s overall capacity for creating functional teams and sustainable change in the future.

    Sample Goals

    Pilot DATs at CU have had a variety of goals. These have included:

    • Integrating courses across the curriculum by facilitating faculty communication and developing common learning goals and shared student experiences across courses.
    • Increasing the inclusion and support of women and students of color in the major.
    • Creating a major from scratch, and creating metrics for assessing student success and improving the major on an ongoing basis.
    • Developing learning outcomes for the major and aligning courses to the outcomes.
    • Redesigning "middle-division" courses so that students are better prepared for upper-division coursework and providing clearer advising to students on how to succeed in the major.
    • Improve student satisfaction with major and sense of belonging in the department


    DATs originated at CU Boulder as a key outcome of the STEM Institutional Transformation Action Research (SITAR) Project, which was funded by the Association of American Universities (AAU). The SITAR project successfully launched six DATs at CU during the 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 academic years. The success of these DATs and the initial research into the DAT model convinced the National Science Foundation to award our team a four-year grant in August 2016 to further implement and study DATs. With this support, our team is continuing to refine the DAT model, support improvement in undergraduate education, and develop resources so that teams at other institutions can begin to use DATs as well.


    DATs are designed to create sustainable change in departments. Similarly, in designing the DAT project, we wanted to ensure that DATs themselves would be sustained as a model for change at CU and CSU. To do so, we are partnering with teaching professional development units on both campuses [the Academic Technology Design Team (ATDT) at CU and The Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT) at CSU]. DATs on each campus are co-facilitated by two members of one of those units, both of whom are supported by grant funds. Over the course of the grant, facilitation will shift entirely to ATDT and TILT, who will ideally be able to secure permanent funding to incorporate DATs into their normal suite of services. Our team will work with the leaders of these units and relevant administrators on both campuses to demonstrate the effectiveness of the DAT model and make the case for its institutionalization.

    We have discussed how DAT increases institutions' capacity for change in a white paper.

    I want a DAT in my department!

    Right now, our project team is working with only a few departments, most of which agreed to participate when we submitted our grant proposal to NSF. This is because we want to focus first on implementing a few DATs successfully and to analyze this process so that when we do add partner departments, we can support them to the best of our ability. Check back here for more information or email your questions directly to

  • Core Principles


    The DAT project is driven by a set of core principles that guide our work. In essence, these principles describe the kind of culture we are trying to create in the DATs we facilitate, and, by extension, the kind of culture we argue departments should strive to enact. These principles are also central to our research, by guiding our research questions, theory of change, and instrument development.

    1. Students are partners.

    Students are empowered to make meaningful decisions about their education and to impact departmental decision-making around undergraduate education. Faculty and staff actively seek out student input on the department on an ongoing basis. Students see themselves as having a say in how departmental decisions are made. There is continuous student involvement to meet the needs of the current student population.

    2. Work focuses on achieving collective positive outcomes.

    Department/DAT members use a shared vision to guide work aimed at achieving change. The process of developing the department's/DAT's vision includes a diversity of relevant stakeholders. Focusing work around outcomes of the long-term vision, rather than immediate problems, allows the group to be more creative, cooperative, and flexible.

    3. Data collection, analysis, and interpretation inform decision-making.

    The department/DAT collects multiple forms of evidence about undergraduate education (e.g., institutional data, research literature) on an ongoing basis. Department/DAT members actively identify and avoid bias in interpreting data by: distinguishing observation from inference, developing multiple interpretations of the same data set, considering both systemic and explanatory factors, and working toward individuals' cultural proficiency and sense of others. These interpretations drive decision-making, rather than personal preferences or idiosyncratic anecdotes.

    4. Collaboration between group members is fun, productive, and rewarding.

    All members of the department/DAT are collaborators with equal access to contributing to decision-making. The department/DAT develops community through activities such as eating together and having celebrations. Members of the department/DAT interact with one another in functional and productive ways.

    5. Continuous improvement is an upheld practice.

    Department/DAT members view change as an ongoing process rather than an event (e.g., they recognize that complex problems do not simply stay solved on their own). Department/DAT members explicitly attend to long-term sustainability when making changes to the department. Department/DAT members regularly reflect on how the department can be improved. Incremental accomplishments are incorporated into the change process to support internal momentum and communicate success to maintain external support.

    6. Work is guided by attention to diversity and inclusion.

    The department/DAT intentionally recruits a diverse membership (e.g., with respect to gender identity and race and ethnicity). Department/DAT members recognize the existence of systemic oppressive power structures, so they actively mitigate power imbalances and work to create anti-oppressive structures. Department/DAT members consider the impact of their decisions on underrepresented populations. Department/DAT members feel a sense of personal responsibility toward improving inclusion in the department.

  • Research


    Nationwide surveys report that fewer than 40% of students who enter college interested in a STEM degree actually complete a STEM degree. In an effort to improve STEM education and retain these students, many teaching strategies have been developed and disseminated, with the assumption that widespread adoption will follow simply because these new strategies have evidence to support their efficacy.

    However, widespread adoption of teaching reforms has not been realized because traditional dissemination approaches ignore deep-rooted institutional structures and culture that can inhibit educational transformation. Our project seeks to avoid this issue by working directly with departments on change that attends to structure and culture through the DAT process. We draw on the organizational change literature, particularly literature about organizational culture, organizational learning, and organizational capacity, to support our theory-building, data collection, practical work with DATs, and interpretation of our findings.

    Products of this project will include:

    • A theory of change that describes the conditions and processes necessary for DATs to create change in their departments, in alignment with our core principles. The theory of change will be developed and tested in the context of the departments with which we work.
    • A deeper understanding of the contexts, structures, and cultures that impact the work of a DAT and its likelihood of success, and the range of possible outcomes a DAT is able to achieve.
    • A deeper understanding of the ways in which individuals on a DAT think about and implement change and of how their capacity to act as change agents changes through their participation in a DAT.
    • A facilitator's guide to support new groups who want to learn how to facilitate DATs on their campus.
    • A roadmap for institutionalizing DATs in teaching professional development units on campuses beyond CSU.
    • Tools for assessing the alignment of departmental culture with our core principles.

    For a summary of our progress to date, check out our 1 Page Research Summary.


    1. D. L. Reinholz, J. C. Corbo, M. H. Dancy, and N. Finkelstein. Departmental Action Teams: Supporting faculty learning through departmental change. (accepted by Learning Communities Journal)
    2. K. Rainey, J. C. Corbo, D. L. Reinholz, and M. Betterton. Improving representation in physical sciences using a Departmental Action Team, in Physics Education Research Conference 2016 (Sacramento, CA, 2016).
    3. J. C. Corbo, D. L. Reinholz, M. H. Dancy, S. Deetz, and N. Finkelstein. Framework for Transforming Departmental Culture to Support Educational Innovation, Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 12, 010113 (2016).
    4. J. C. Corbo, D. L. Reinholz, M. H. Dancy, and N. Finkelstein. Departmental Action Teams: Empowering Faculty to Make Sustainable Change, in Physics Education Research Conference 2015 (College Park, MD, 2015).
    5. D. L. Reinholz, J. C. Corbo, M. H. Dancy, S. Deetz, and N. Finkelstein. Towards a Model of Systemic Change in University STEM Education, in Transforming Institutions: Undergraduate STEM Education for the 21st Century, edited by G. C. Weaver, W. D. Burgess, A. L. Childress, and L. Slakey (Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, IN, 2015).
  • People


    The TILT DAT Team works with departments across campus facilitating Departmental Action Teams and conducting research on the processess and effectiveness of their efforts.

    Karen Falkenberg

    Position: DAT Facilitator Director of Instructional Design and Development.

    Voice: (970) 491-3303
    Email: Karen Falkenberg

    Karen Falkenberg is the Director of Teaching and Instruction with the Institute for Learning and Teaching at Colorado State University where she consults with faculty on a wide range of pedagogical and curricular enhancements and supports individuals' and groups' work on culture, diversity and group process skills. She has over 37 years of experience in STEM and education beginning with her work as a research chemical engineer. Her education research has focused on educators' creativity and innovation and on students' self-efficacy and cultural competencies. Karen has numerous accomplishments that include a patent for solar cell technology and acting as a contributing author to the National Academy of Engineering's publication Technically Speaking: Why all Americans need to know more about technology (2002). She was the Undergraduate Education Director for the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience in Atlanta and acted as a consultant to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to infuse STEM into the traditional Buddhist curriculum; Karen has taught over 1000 practicing and pre-service teachers, and has individually coached or mentored over 125 emerging leaders.

    Courtney Ngai

    Position: DAT Facilitator Postdoctoral Researcher.
    Email: Courtney Ngai

    Courtney Ngai is a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University. She completed her graduate work at University of Massachusetts Boston, and previous work at UMB includes research into understanding and characterizing how students classify and differentiate substances. Courtney also worked on a collaboration with science and chemistry teachers affiliated with Boston Public Schools to assess and foster students' chemical thinking. Outside of research, Courtney volunteers for i-Trek, a nonprofit organization seeking to increase diversity in STEM by providing underrepresented students with research opportunities. Currently, Courtney serves as both a facilitator and researcher for DATs at CSU.

    Chris Geanious

    Position: DAT Facilitator Instructional Designer II.

    Voice: (970) 491-3310
    Email: Chris Geanious

    Chris Geanious Chris Geanious has worked with TILT as an Instructional Designer since January 2012. Most of this time has been spent working with faculty redesigning or enhancing face-to-face courses. In addition to this work, Chris is involved with the integration of 3D printing technologies into courses as well as in the development and integration of mobile apps for academic use. Chris has been supporting faculty and students in higher education for over 20 years. His MEd course work was focused in Curriculum and Instruction and he also worked on a NSF funded project involving developing Environmental Science curriculum in a simulation environment. Chris's areas of expertise include instructional design, multi-media production, advanced instructional technology, online learning and active learning strategies. More recently he has joined the TILT DAT team and is enthusiastic about his role as a DAT Facilitator and Researcher.

  • Resources


    Resources for Facilitators

    Collaborative Communities: A chart that describes the differences between DATs, Faculty Learning Communities, and Departmental Committees

    Norms of Collaboration: Features of effective collaborative groups

    Non-Refereed Writing

    1. S. Wise, J. C. Corbo, G. M. Quan, and M. Gammon. Increasing the Capacity for Change at CU., white paper submitted to Academic Futures (2017).