Engaging College Students to Support Science Learning

Friday, May 20, 2011
Teresa MacDonald

summer camp

Aquatic Biology summer camp

A recent Science article reported by the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/13/science/13teach.html?_r=5&ref=science&) presented the findings of a study that compared the impact of a traditional lecture format to a more interactive approach to teaching in a large college physics class. The latter approach included soliciting students’ ideas and providing feedback, small group work, and in-class activities — and resulted in improved student learning, attendance and engagement.

The foundation of the ‘deliberate practice’ model and related ideas in educational research is that learners have their own ideas about how the world works, and that we can support learning by actively exploring and connecting with these existing ideas through meaningful, engaging experiences. In short, students are active participants in their learning.

On a small scale, our Aquatic Biology summer camp could be viewed through the lens of ‘deliberate practice.’ It involves small group activities and provides opportunities for participants to practice their knowledge and skills. Youth are introduced to basic ideas about water quality and assessment techniques, exploring these techniques through a series of simple experiments, and then collecting and recording data in the field. We then discuss our findings.

The hitch with a more interactive and engaged approach is that it takes a lot of time. Consciously and deliberately designing your teaching around such strategies at any level is time-consuming, although it gets easier with experience. For example, creating field journals that are accessible and usable by 8 to 11 years olds takes thought and planning.

Many years ago as a graduate student in Canada I was involved with a Women in Science organization which conducted a study on the impact of a ‘female-friendly’ introductory college chemistry curriculum which included in-class activities and problem-solving with real-world connections. The result — test performance was on par with other sections, but student interest and motivation were significantly higher in the study group. It turned out that such strategies were not only ‘female-friendly’, but were in fact ‘student-friendly.’

An important finding from the Science study and others is that more engaging teaching strategies not only improve traditionally tested outcomes but also enhance student confidence, interest and motivation — critical factors in thinking about life-long learning and career choices. They can also support informed decision making about science/technology issues.

Museums and other informal science institutions are familiar with this approach as they seek to connect with visitors through their exhibits and programming. Such experiences support factual and conceptual understanding, but perhaps most powerfully influence affective elements related to learning such as engagement and motivation about science. Enhancing content knowledge and understanding as well as supporting an interest in science without the incentive (or disincentive) of a test is a powerful impact!

In a time with mounting pressures and decreasing resources, it can seem daunting to attempt such a course. But there are resources to help. KU’s Center for Teaching Excellence provides resources and workshops to support and enhance faculty teaching. A surprising success story comes from Quarked! Adventures in the Subatomic Universe, a collaborative KU physics education project that includes a website with videos and games. Originally targeted at youth 7 to 12, teachers and the general public, several physics faculty have found it useful for their classes to provide an overall conceptual framework for particle physics and the mechanisms involved.

Thoughtfully planned and informed learning experiences are time-consuming, but well worth it and become easier with time and practice. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

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