Research News

Rules of engagement: Transforming the teaching of college-level science

A science education advocate who trained as a molecular biologist uses her analytical background to create teaching strategies that energize both students and faculty

Remember BIO 101? The professor lectured uninterrupted while some students scrawled pages of notes and others zoned out. Tests usually meant memorizing life cycles, cell parts and classification schemes. For many college freshmen, the introductory course still involves memorization, note-taking and a few energy drinks.

For students at the University of Maine (UM), however, each introductory biology lecture requires active participation. Armed with electronic clickers, the 800 students enrolled in the course's three sections power through questions about DNA, genetics and other life science topics. Their professor, Farahad Dastoor, tallies their answers and asks them to discuss with those sitting nearby how they arrived at their responses. The entire class then discusses conclusions reached by the small groups.

Outside of class, Dastoor further engages students with short-answer questions that they respond to online. Dastoor posts questions before and after he introduces a topic to identify the students' level of understanding as well as any misconceptions they have. Computer software created by the Automated Analysis of Constructed Response research group analyzes student responses and presents summary reports of the concepts that they do--and do not--understand, allowing Dastoor to review the students' answers quickly.

Based on the feedback reports from these questions, Dastoor tailors how he presents his material to ensure that students grasp concepts and remain engaged in a topic. "As I read through the responses I can see what's going on in their thought process and, if necessary, avoid certain words when we follow up to avoid misconceptions," explains Dastoor, who's taught the intro course for the last decade.

The active learning that punctuates UM's intro course is the result of a collaborative effort between Dastoor and molecular biologist Michelle Smith, the resident science education guru in UM's Department of Biology and Ecology. She's also a member of the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education. Smith's position in the department is as unique as her approach. As the lead or co-lead on five current National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, Smith is helping to re-envision science education on her campus as well as across the country.

The need for change

Rather than promote the "sage on the stage" lecture approach, Smith and a coterie of like-minded scientists including Nobel physicist Carl Wieman are applying their scientific training to determine the best ways to develop student-centered classrooms. "What Michelle and her colleagues are doing," says NSF program director Katherine Denniston "is propagating effective teaching practices, as well as providing data to convince other scientists that it is worth their time to change how they teach."

The need is great. According to Engage to Excel, a 2012 report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete such a degree. As Denniston points out, Smith's work will not only benefit STEM major completion, but will also improve scientific literacy in the U.S.

"Every kid has to take an intro course; the better those are taught, the better equipped the students will be to deal with big issues facing society." Those who retain the scientific concepts they've learned will be more effective innovators and can strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.

Supporting the science of teaching

Smith notes that her position at Maine could not exist if she didn't have support from NSF. "This funding is critical to legitimize the field. It makes a huge difference all up and down the line," she says.

Specifically, her work focuses on incorporating active learning activities into large lecture classes, developing assessments to measure student understanding, strengthening faculty communities to share best teaching practices, expanding peer-to-peer faculty observation programs to enhance student learning and increase mentoring opportunities, and evaluating the overall content of the material presented to students majoring in biology.

"Michelle's work validates the science of teaching and brings it into the conversation at all levels from faculty meetings to peer-reviewed journals," says Smith's colleague Mary Tyler, a zoologist who in her 25-year career has used active learning techniques in her classes. "The biggest myth out there is that students hear what you say, understand it and then know it. The data show this isn't true."

Getting faculty to alter their teaching can be tricky. But Smith's reliance on data gleaned through classroom observation enables her to remove emotion from the equation. "We say, 'Here's what the class looks like. Does it jibe with what you see?'" Smith only makes suggestions on improvements when asked and makes all of the data gathered available to faculty.

In addition to providing data to support various teaching strategies, Smith says it's important to describe the motivation behind the strategies in terms scientists can relate to. "We're figuring out the best ways to speak to people who are pressed for time and faced with multiple research and service responsibilities," she says.

Cultivating both instructors and students

This thoughtful approach is paying off for faculty and students. "Michelle has created a force in the department that we can go to for advice, to give input, to collaborate with on grants. Everything has changed because she is so collaborative," explains Tyler. "There is no finger-pointing. She doesn't insert herself as an expert. She just lays out the data. That's quite new."

Students are responding to the changes Dastoor has made in his teaching. "They've said they like the classroom discussion. The use of small groups especially helps bring introverts into the conversation. Making a large class more intimate isn't easy, but it is possible," he says.

He relies on teaching assistants strategically placed around the room to facilitate discussion when needed, data from the clickers and short-answer questions as well as a simple seating chart with names and faces. "Michelle helped me personalize the students so they don't feel anonymous. It makes a difference," he says.

While Smith's work focuses on teaching science to undergraduates, her desire to collaborate across the curriculum extends beyond college faculty. Middle- and high-school teachers gather the data Smith and her colleagues use to evaluate classroom techniques. This gives another set of educators an indirect professional development opportunity as they observe how faculty and students interact.

At UM, developing a personal relationship with other instructors has helped Smith build her collaborative network. As she and her colleagues expand their work beyond Maine, they've met some resistance to their message. Trust, they've found, is an essential element in persuading faculty to join them. "They don't know us, so they don't always trust us. Having a local expert is important," she says. Professional development components on the outreach programs will focus on cultivating these local instructors.

One for the road

Beyond the realm of academia, Smith has applied her research techniques to help the state's blueberry growers. Faculty from the extension service contacted Smith when they learned that the farmers were not always implementing the approaches they'd suggested. With a set of clickers, she drove around the state with extension staff meeting farmers, collecting demographic data and recording their responses to questions posed by the staff.

"We found all ages, from those just starting out to 80-year-olds. Some had doctorates while others had only a middle school education. We also discovered that everybody learned from their neighbor," Smith says.

In the blueberry grower meetings, Smith and the staff sometimes faced a tough crowd. Many were skeptical. "It took some coaxing to get 70-year-old men in camouflage to use the clickers and discuss what they were learning," Smith says. But then it happened. One man stood up when he got an answer right and said, "Yes!"

For Smith, that response broke the ice. "People understanding. That's the key."