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Professors' research to improve STEM teaching

By Tom McBrien, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 17, 2014

Think about a lecture you attended just two days ago. How many facts can you recall? Odds are, not many. Decades of research have shown that the traditional lecture is a poor way to teach, and a group of University faculty leaders is planning to change how science and math courses are taught over the next three to five years.

The program, called REBUILD — Researching Evidence Based Undergraduate Instructional and Learning Developments — received a $2 million National Science Foundation grant to study evidence-based educational practices and institute the findings in introductory science courses that affect more than 8,000 students per term. Classes such as organic chemistry, introductory physics and introductory biology could all see large changes.

For the past 30 years, the NSF has been studying how best to educate STEM students, resulting in significant discoveries in the efficacy of different educational techniques. While the results of this research are available to educators, there is a gap between knowledge of the best educational techniques and the practices actually used in introductory STEM classes.

“A typical instructor at the University gets their job on the faculty for being an excellent researcher and by being an excellent researcher,” said Physics Prof. Timothy McKay, principal investigator for REBUILD. “So they build a career that’s largely focused on research until the point that they become a faculty member. And then, all of a sudden, they become a person who’s also going to teach. And very little formal training usually goes into teaching.”

To address this gap, the program will bring together 12 faculty members from across the departments of biology, chemistry, math and physics who will meet for at least one and a half hours once every other week for the next three years. These faculty members will study the current literature on STEM education, becoming experts on the subject. They will then share their findings with the different departments during the departments’ colloquia — weekly meetings in which all members are present to learn about and discuss certain topics.

STEM education is becoming increasingly important in the United States and approximately 40 to 60 percent of prospective STEM majors drop their degree program and select a different major before graduation. While some of this change is normal, one major goal of REBUILD will be to stop the flow of science and math students leaving their majors just because of the difficulty or unpleasantness of the introductory courses.

McKay said that this effort is an important one for the future of the University and the future of education.

“I have this feeling that this is my one shot in my career to change something of this scale. We’re down for three years for sure; it might take five. But if we don’t make it move now, I’m not going to see it move. Ever,” McKay said.

The main goal of the program is to build a culture of change and innovation in education across the science and math departments at the University. Educators would be expected to have the time, tools and effort to use educational techniques proven by research to be effective.

The core faculty of the REBUILD program are still doing preliminary research and getting a lay of the land in their departments before instituting any big changes.

“How is it being taught? How is it being learned and how is it being tested? We have just started focus groups of students to address question #2. We plan to address questions #1 and #2 over the summer,” Associate Chemistry Prof. Anne McNeil wrote in an e-mail interview.

Changes will likely begin gradually and grow over time. Eventually, REBUILD could alter current introductory science courses into almost unrecognizable versions of their current forms.

One major alteration could be changing many courses into “flipped” classrooms. In this model, students would teach themselves a majority of the material outside of the classroom using textbooks, video lectures and other tools. Class time would then involve teams of students doing problem sets, practice exams and other active-learning components with the class instructor, GSIs and undergraduate teaching assistants walking around to help.

McKay lauded this type of learning, saying that it works especially well because it allows undergraduates and GSIs to get more teaching experience. He added that if the system works, students should not be spending any more time on their education than they are currently, due to the reduced need for self-teaching from lecture slides and office hours after nearly useless lectures. He also said there would need to be some sort of increased faculty investment, whether through hiring new faculty or greater time investment by current faculty.

The REBUILD program began in January 2014 and the first major changes to courses could occur as early as this fall.