Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in this country has come under increasing scrutiny as employers, government agencies, and postsecondary institutions point to the lack of prepared students in STEM-related fields. Evidence compels higher education institutions to improve the quality of teaching to better prepare students for lives of productive service. While such evidence has spurred multiple reform movements, little substantive change has actually occurred. Despite a culture of passive and transmissive learning in higher education STEM disciplines, inspirational STEM professors exist who dramatically impact students in positive and meaningful ways. The purpose of this qualitative phenomenological study was to describe the lived experiences of transformational STEM professors who negotiate their existence within the passive culture that is prevalent in STEM higher education. Inspirational professors were identified through teaching awards and student comments that reflected transformational leadership components. Semi-structured interviews of eight professors unveiled insights into their shared experiences. Coding revealed five themes: professorship, culture, pedagogy, inspiration and motivation, and future change. The words of the professors provided evidence for all four components of transformational leadership, but the most impactful element was individualized consideration. Inspirational professors in this study relied less on charisma and more on genuine care and concern for students. Rather than focusing on factual knowledge as the quintessential element of a course, the professors considered facts to be the foundation for solving problems in new and innovative ways. The interviewed STEM professors collectively pointed to a crack in the process of adopting learner-centered strategies: perspective. Without recognizing how fundamental core beliefs about teaching and learning affect pedagogy, change is unlikely to be sustainable. Thus, professional development opportunities should include more than teaching techniques. First, they must address the underlying teaching philosophies of faculty members. Active learning strategies developed organically within an established mentoring and caring framework may be more permanent and have a greater impact. Finally, higher education institutions should be more intentional in ways to support and promote a culture that values relationships between faculty and students.


Ginger Zierdt

Committee Member

Polly Browne

Committee Member

Jean Haar

Date of Degree




Document Type



Doctor of Education (EdD)


Educational Leadership





Rights Statement

In Copyright