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Science that sizzles

Innovative science teaching breaks out of lecture mode to give students a mental workout – and the motivation to stay in science programs.


When Jyssika Russell took her first crack at undergraduate science, she left after a year. It wasn’t that she couldn’t manage the work. Rather, the Ottawa native was frustrated with a program that discouraged her from going beyond her textbooks to explore deeper science questions, or linking knowledge from other sciences to her biomedical studies.

“I was more interested in research. But it was very much learn and regurgitate, learn and regurgitate,” Ms. Russell, 20, says of her first experience. She took a year off and tried again, with a fledgling interdisciplinary science program at McMaster University aimed at top students. Game on.

“This is exactly what I wanted from my first university experience,” says Ms. Russell, who finds herself among an elite crop of 39 high-performing, highly motivated students in McMaster’s honours integrated science program, called iSci. “I’m able to explore my own ideas and my own interests. … This program is not just about seeing the relevance. It’s about experiencing the relevance.”

While iSci focuses on examining scientific problems from the perspective of different science disciplines, it also marries many trends in innovative science teaching that increasingly are popping up across the country.

These trends can be characterized as a move away from traditional lecture-and-lab teaching towards more experiential learning. Professors talk less, students discuss and problem-solve more. Students are invited to see themselves as scientists by being allowed to tackle big-picture science questions early in their education, before they master a curriculum heavy on facts and theory. Professors also are paying closer attention to how, and how well, students are learning the material so they can adjust their teaching approach more quickly.

“Students don’t mind working … if they can see the relevance of what they’re doing,” says Carolyn Eyles, iSci’s director and a professor in McMaster’s geography and earth sciences school. “You can change the whole tone of the class if you introduce why they need to know this.”

With the afternoon sun shining through the windows, Dr. Eyles, winner of a 2009 3M Teaching Fellowship, has her science literacy class up and moving almost as much as they are sitting. Even when they’re sitting, they’re often scooting across the floor on wheeled chairs discussing questions with other students, thanks to the moveable furniture Dr. Eyles lobbied for.

“We’ve turned the corridor into a geologic outcrop,” Dr. Eyles tells them, pointing to the hallway outside where she’s arranged rock samples into sections, divided by tape on the floor representing boundaries between different rock units. “I’m going to give you 15 minutes to go and map the corridor.”

Dr. Eyles is trying to get students to grasp how scientific thought advances and what influences that advance and what hinders it, by assigning the book The Map That Changed the World. Simon Winchester’s book tells the story of geologist William Smith, who produced the world’s first geologic map in 1815. The best way for students to understand the challenges facing the 19th-century geologist, Dr. Eyles believes, is by trying the same thing themselves.

By the time the two-hour class is over, students have made group presentations on chapters of Winchester’s book, discussed lessons learned from Smith’s story – such as his introducing new concepts of geological time and change – presented their own maps and defended their conclusions. They come away with an enhanced understanding of geology.

ISci came on stream last fall as a four-year integrated science program, modelled on McMaster’s inquiry-based integrated arts and sciences program, also for top students; students accepted for iSci last year had a minimum average in the low 90s. After an initial six-week boot camp, commonly team-taught, on core content and skills in six science disciplines, the program moves students into a series of research projects, such as finding a cure for cancer and planning a hypothetical mission to Mars.

The program was created partly out of concern that “science was becoming more and more siloed,” says Dr. Eyles. “We also wanted students to develop as thinkers, as researchers – not just as consumers of information.”

Creating better scientists is one reason for change. But another concern is attracting and keeping students in the sciences, period.

In a speech last January, Princeton University President and molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman lamented the decreasing number of students interested in studies and careers in the sciences and engineering. She said that inverting the traditional “pyramid” of science teaching was the key to bringing back the excitement of science studies, and that her own experiences teaching at Princeton bore this out. The pyramid method typically starts at the bottom with memorization of a laundry list of foundational facts and, after many years of study, rises to their relevance, accessed by working through research problems.

McMaster isn’t alone in Canada in trying to address these pedagogical issues in the sciences. Acadia University, after noticing that even traditional labs were failing to engage students’ imagination, has been trying a variety of new approaches over the last 14 years. These include a model combining lectures with “studio labs” to teach introductory physics.

“All the great discoveries in the world usually happen in labs,” explains Acadia’s science dean Peter Williams. “If we’re not getting people excited about labs, we’re in trouble.”

Formerly, the first-year physics model consisted of three one-hour lectures and a three-hour laboratory each week. The lab used a “cookbook” approach, where students followed instructions to achieve a result illustrating a curriculum concept. Due to space and time restrictions, the lab didn’t necessarily link to the week’s lecture content.

In the revamped introductory physics course, Dr. Williams tries to get students’ creative juices flowing by making lab work relevant to what’s being discussed in class. The once-a-week lab was replaced by two studio labs of two hours each, held the same days as two of the weekly lectures. The studio lab presents students with a problem to solve and little to no guidance on how to get there. (At Acadia, introductory physics has about 100 students taught as a single section, but divided into two groups for the studio lab portion, supervised by a faculty member, an instructor and two teaching assistants.)

Dr. Williams uses an even more self-directed approach in a second-year data acquisition class, where students learn how to connect computers directly to physics experiments to collect data and send data-based signals influencing the experiment’s progression.

“I spend very little time lecturing in that class,” he says. “I tell my students, ‘Here’s the skill we want you to develop, here’s the thing I want you to do … go!’ It’s magnificent. It’s really, really busy.”

Most of his time in those sessions is spent answering students’ questions, which, he says, addresses their individual learning needs better than lecturing at them.

But, does catering to students’ desire for science’s sizzle deprive them of the fundamentals they’ll need later on? Students are exposed to less content, agrees Dr. Williams, but they retain more than they do in the traditional lecture model where profs “blast away at you with a fire hose and if some of it sticks, great.”

Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003 found that a studio model for physics courses doubled students’ learning gains over a traditional lecture approach.

Some innovative programs work well for small classes of excellent students but are too expensive to offer to all undergraduate students taking science. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to find ways to engage students who might not be among the top tier, says Glen Loppnow, a University of Alberta chemistry professor and 3M Teaching Fellow. He notes that many students who don’t become science majors will eventually have influence over public policy concerning scientific issues, simply by being members of society.

And the sink-or-swim approach to teaching will never work for the second tier of students, he adds: “They need a more supportive environment.”

Dr. Loppnow teaches the U of A’s own interdisciplinary science course, Science 100. He says he does “everything I can” to stimulate student thinking in a large-class environment. He gives low-stakes writing assignments that try to relate students’ everyday lives to chemistry; one such assignment asked students to list chemistry-related references in the “Bad Romance” video by pop music artist Lady Gaga. He uses group and individual problem-solving in class and encourages students to find their own ways to learn chemistry basics, perhaps by choosing an element and learning the most unusual fact about it they can find.

The University of British Columbia, meanwhile, is taking a broader approach. The university is trying to reform the way science is taught to all students through its five-year, $12-million Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative that is pushing change through as many of its science departments as it can. The Nobel-prize winning Dr. Wieman believes the traditional way of teaching undergraduate science is badly outdated.

“There’s a complete mismatch between the standard lecture format and everything we know about how to change thinking in the human brain,” Dr. Wieman said when he moved to UBC to lead this initiative in 2007. (He is now on an unpaid leave of absence from UBC after accepting an appointment from President Obama as White House associate director of science and technology policy.)

Discussing his approach, Dr. Wieman frequently cites pedagogical research, such as a 1998 study by Richard R. Hake showing that in a traditional lecture, students retain no more than 30 percent of key concepts that they did not already know and that more interactive teaching methods consistently show better results.

So far, there’s more evidence of what doesn’t work in science teaching than what does. The Wieman initiative is trying to address this by researching the effects of its own attempt at widespread change. The initiative also bases its approach on cognitive science findings that show true expertise comes from extended mental grappling with problems, rather than from trying to memorize facts.

“We’re trying to change the classroom from a monologue to a dialogue,” says UBC’s George Spiegelman. He teaches a first-year cell biology course that, in his view, used to consist of “three hours per week of one person talking and 300 people sleeping.

“The difficulty in a big class,” he goes on, “is that I can’t personally have a dialogue with everybody, but everybody can have a dialogue with someone else.”

Dr. Spiegelman sets that up with in-class assignments. One assignment asks students to collaborate with each other to figure out a device that could detect faults on a high-speed railroad track; it’s designed to prepare students to think about how cells repair their DNA.

Students’ test scores have risen slightly under his new teaching methods, but what really has improved is their problem-solving abilities, even though Dr. Spiegelman has cut out one-third of his lectures.

Technology often has a lead role to play in large classes. For example, clickers are intrinsic to the Wieman initiative’s close monitoring of student learning. Students use the handheld devices to choose a multiple-choice answer to questions posed by the teacher.

The tool allows Dr. Spiegelman to immediately discover how well students understand the concepts he’s introducing and to tailor his teaching on the spot.

He uses online assignments before each first-year class for the same purpose, getting senior-level undergraduates to summarize results from a random sample of the first-year students’ completed assignments; that way, he knows a day before class where students will need the most help. At U of A, Dr. Loppnow says the clicker technology is especially good at engaging visible minorities and women who otherwise tend to stay quiet.

But the innovations can only go as far as faculty and administration let them – and buy-in, in an environment that emphasizes research success over teaching improvement, is not always easy. At UBC, the departments that have really bought into the initiative are earth and ocean sciences, physics, computer science and math, says Dr. Wieman. Half joking, he describes the experiment so far as “somewhere in the middle between a spectacular, utter success and a dismal failure.”

Dr. Loppnow, for his part, is more optimistic than ever: “I really think we’re at the stage of a tipping point. There’s enough evidence and enough awareness and will out there that we realize something has to be done.”

Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based journalist.
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