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  July 25,  2005
Volume 83, Number 30
pp. 55-57

Report details methods to heighten the impact of undergraduate science and engineering education


Creativity in science education is flourishing. Some of the innovative techniques that instructors are trying are detailed in a report released in May by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). What the report makes discouragingly clear, however, is that some of these innovations have been in the works for years. If these techniques can be introduced more widely, perhaps fewer students will turn away from science as a major and a career.

The report, "Invention and Impact: Building Excellence in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education," represents the proceedings of an April 2004 conference held in Arlington, Va. AAAS and NSF sponsored the meeting to spread the word about teaching innovations.

Faculty are aware that the old methods of instructing STEM students could stand improvement, according to the report. "We have observed that the traditional pedagogy of lecture and supporting laboratories, dense with factual content, was not the best teaching method to help many of these students learn," writes Katherine J. Denniston, a program officer in NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education, in a chapter. "We watched as, frustrated, many students left the STEM disciplines for other areas of study."

Although educators such as those who contributed to the report have labored to reshape science instruction, their efforts haven't had as widespread an impact as possible, the report suggests. To a certain extent, that's because innovations don't appear to transmit readily from professor to professor, according to Paula R. L. Heron, Peter S. Shaffer, and Lillian C. McDermott, physics professors at the University of Washington, Seattle.

"The view among many faculty that teaching is an art and not a science has prevented the cumulative progress that characterizes the sciences," they write in their chapter. "Often, new instructors start from scratch, trusting that personal charisma, intuition, and experience gained through trial and error are sufficient for effective teaching. This approach sometimes works quite well, especially when the primary measure of success is based on student perceptions. When student learning is used as a criterion, however, the outcome is often quite disappointing. Systematic investigations have demonstrated that the gap between what is taught and what is learned is often greater than many instructors realize."

In part, this disconnect arises because "most students in a traditional introductory course cannot do the qualitative reasoning necessary to apply concepts to situations not expressly memorized," according to the University of Washington authors. "Our experience has shown that this ability can be developed if students are given practice in solving qualitative problems and in explaining their reasoning."

The trio shows how to narrow the gap between instruction and absorption by focusing on key ideas and skills that students find especially difficult. Thus, students are given a quiz that reveals whether they have merely memorized a rule of physics or they can generalize the idea beyond the context in which they learned it. In groups, the students then work on a worksheet that breaks the reasoning process into steps and helps the students arrive at a correct answer.

ACADEMIC BOWL China's Ministry of Education, which wants to connect better with students, invited Patterson (back row) to demonstrate just-in-time teaching techniques. As part of a lesson on waves and music, the students are creating resonance and waves in a bowl of water by rubbing the bowl's handles.
ACADEMIC BOWL China's Ministry of Education, which wants to connect better with students, invited Patterson (back row) to demonstrate just-in-time teaching techniques. As part of a lesson on waves and music, the students are creating resonance and waves in a bowl of water by rubbing the bowl's handles.


FACULTY ARE trying numerous other techniques to engage the interest of their students. With peer-led team learning (PLTL), small groups of students meet periodically to solve problems under the guidance of a trained peer leader, a student who has done well in the course previously. According to three chemistry professors who authored a chapter on PLTL--Pratibha Varma-Nelson of Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Mark S. Cracolice of the University of Montana, and David K. Gosser of City College of the City University of New York--more than 180 faculty at 90 colleges are using the method in the teaching of chemistry, math, physics, and biology.

With just-in-time teaching (JiTT), students complete a Web-based assignment--sometimes called a "WarmUp"--shortly before each lecture. Students in an introductory biology course, for instance, are asked, "Why do you think chemotherapy drugs cause a person's hair to fall out?" Students in a chemistry course are given this question: "Jim thinks ozone is good. Jill thinks it is bad. Who is right?" Evelyn T. Patterson, a physics professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, notes in the report that such questions can't be answered by relying on rote memorization of rules.

An Indiana University JiTT website says that "student responses will contain anything from blatant misconceptions and misunderstandings to statements that need only a little editing to be correct." If the students' performance on the prelecture assignment reveals any weaknesses in comprehension, the professor can then adjust the content of the lecture to address those deficits.

"In a JiTT course, discussion of and activities based on the WarmUp questions and the student responses to them are central to the classroom time," according to Patterson. "Often, anonymous excerpts of student responses are presented in class and used as discussion points or as centerpieces of class activities." As of the middle of last year, roughly 300 faculty in two dozen disciplines at about 100 institutions in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Israel were using JiTT.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT Universities are experimenting with classrooms--such as this rendering of one at MIT for an introductory physics course--that use laptop computers, white boards, small groups at round tables, and roaming instructors to improve learning.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT Universities are experimenting with classrooms--such as this rendering of one at MIT for an introductory physics course--that use laptop computers, white boards, small groups at round tables, and roaming instructors to improve learning.


ANOTHER ALTERNATIVE to the traditional course format cited in the report involves classes in which students work in teams to observe and study physical phenomena. In place of a lecture and lab, students take four to six hours of activity-based instruction per week, generally in two-hour blocks. Physics professors Robert J. Beichner of North Carolina State University and Jeffery M. Saul of the University of Central Florida, Orlando, describe implementations of this approach in physics classes. They note that the method is now being applied to introductory chemistry courses as well.

VROOM! Engineering students Brandon Johnson (left) and Tami Sipola put the finishing touches on their "thermo-boat" for a competition at Itasca Community College.

VROOM! Engineering students Brandon Johnson (left) and Tami Sipola put the finishing touches on their "thermo-boat" for a competition at Itasca Community College.

"We redesigned the classroom environment to better promote active, collaborative learning," say Beichner and Saul. "Taking a cue from a typical restaurant layout and following considerable experimentation, we use round tables with comfortable chairs placed around them. Each table seats three teams of three students." With this setup, a faculty member, a graduate student, and an undergraduate can oversee a classroom of 99 students.

The students are encouraged to communicate with teams at other tables via laptops. And they work out answers to posed questions--such as a calculation of the number of excess electrons on a piece of transparent tape after it is pulled up from a tabletop--on white boards mounted on the classroom walls. "Because students do their 'thinking' on these public spaces, the instructor can more easily see how groups are progressing during an activity," Beichner and Saul note.

Instructors can broaden their students' knowledge beyond the science content of their courses by using a Web-based technique known as calibrated peer review (CPR), according to Arlene A. Russell, a lecturer in the chemistry department at the University of California, Los Angeles. Students prepare written assignments. For instance, they may be asked to write an essay of 420 words about the trip an electron takes in a zinc-copper electrochemical cell. Online CPR tools then guide the students through a tutorial that teaches them how to review their peers' performance on that same assignment, she explains in the report.

The exercise "not only promotes student understanding through writing but also develops student critical-thinking skills through the process of evaluation and reviewing," according to Russell. These skills would come in handy for students who become scientists and engineers and are called on to write and peer-review research proposals and manuscripts.

The training has a more immediate impact as well. According to Russell, studies show that students "using CPR assignments perform about 10% better" on exams than students taught traditionally. She adds that, as of early last year, 500 institutions were using CPR.

In addition to better preparing students for life after college, educators are taking steps to ensure that they retain students in their departments prior to graduation, the report points out. One example of how to do this comes from the engineering department at Itasca Community College, a rural two-year institution in Grand Rapids, Minn. After earning an associate's degree at Itasca, most engineering students transfer to a university to earn an engineering degree.

A key feature of Itasca's program to improve retention among its engineering students is the engineering center. In addition to classrooms and a lab for student design projects, the center includes a 36-bed student dormitory. Students thus have access to classrooms and computers 24/7.

The college designed the classrooms to appeal to students by including amenities such as a refrigerator, microwave, TV, DVD player, sofa, and phone. "This environment helps students build strong relationships that provide a built-in support system where they work together on homework and deal with difficult issues," according to engineering instructor Ronald Ulseth.

The immersion in engineering doesn't end with the design of the facility, however. Effective retention requires "intensive personal coaching, which focuses on quality interactions between scholars, instructors, counselors, and staff," notes Ulseth. Chemistry, math, physics, and engineering faculty coach students on a weekly basis and also interact with them through online personal journals, personal interviews, and evening help sessions.

Classes are offered in brief and intensive blocks. Students take one course at a time for about three-and-a-half weeks, followed by a final exam and another course.

Itasca also shows its engineering students the relevance of their course work by taking them on tours of universities and industrial facilities.

Students gain an even more direct appreciation for the relevance of their studies through a program at Purdue University. There, engineering and science students, as well as those in other disciplines, take on group projects on behalf of nonprofit organizations in the local community, according to the report. In projects that last anywhere from a semester to years, students have been asked to address community needs including development and evaluation of methods to remove radon from basements, design of an environmental monitoring system to help a museum better preserve its collection, and development of an outdoor science lab for local schools.

Teams range in size from eight to 20 undergraduates and also include a representative from the nonprofit group as well as a faculty or industry adviser. Graduate teaching assistants also provide support.

Students can join a team as early as the second semester of their freshman year. As students mature and advance in their education, they take on more duties within the group.

Purdue University engineering professors William C. Oakes and Leah H. Jamieson note that 15 campuses in the U.S. have adopted Purdue's model of combining service and learning in the training of engineering students.

WORKING IN cross-disciplinary teams and interacting with the local community offers Purdue's students many opportunities to improve their communication skills. Other institutions, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are experimenting with methods to formalize training in such skills, which can be useful for interacting with scientists and nonscientists alike.

When scientists get together to discuss their work, one of them may make a quick sketch to communicate an idea, Felice Frankel, a science photographer and research scientist at MIT, points out in the report. Before producing the sketch, the scientist must first consider how to visually express the idea. That step affords "a means of clarifying the idea for the person making the drawing," she notes. "We believe this process has the potential of revolutionizing the teaching of science."

MIT is exploring the translation of science into images as a learning tool, Frankel notes. "It is not enough to simply ask students to draw or animate a scientific concept for their own notebooks. The additional element of making it communicative, expressing an idea to another, gives the exercise another dimension," she explains.

Because this mode of instruction takes students beyond the usual verbal and mathematical explanations given in technical courses, "it provides a fundamentally new approach to teaching difficult concepts of science and engineering," according to Frankel.

In a pilot project with Frankel, undergraduate Marianna Shnayderman produced a series of animations about nanoscience for high school students and the general public. To prepare for the project, she read textbooks and also met with researchers, an experience that allowed her "to ask the questions she would not ordinarily have the chance to ask--those beyond questions in the textbooks," Frankel writes. More important, by directing the questions to those who do research, Shnayderman got "a new and unusual perspective."

Once Shnayderman presented her first drafts to the researchers, "some of the errors in her thinking became apparent," according to Frankel. "Her errors became part of the learning experience."

In her report on the project, Shnayderman writes that the standard educational system involving lectures and textbooks may not provide students with comprehension and insight into the complex material being taught. But "when I became responsible for teaching others about the concepts through animation, I felt that I really had to understand what I was talking about and learned a great deal from the process."

The greater use of visual aids could have a side benefit, according to Frankel. "Students who would not ordinarily consider science as part of their educational experience might become drawn to science as they see and use the more welcoming and accessible tools of the visual language."

By going beyond rote memorization, the MIT approach and other innovative teaching techniques can assist students in mastering the enormous amount of material they have to absorb in college.

"Teachers must help students acquire a deep knowledge of the subject matter--but they also need to help students organize that knowledge in a useful way," write engineering education professor Glenn W. Ellis and undergraduate Baaba B. Andam at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in the report. "Too often in the classroom it is left entirely to the students to put all the pieces together and see the big picture."

LEARN BY TEACHING MIT's Shnayderman gained greater insight into her subject when she prepared an animation about block copolymers for nonscientists.
  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2005

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