A special issue of Nature, the international science weekly journal, Building the 21st Century Scientist addresses the need to change how STEM content is taught. "For generations, classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have been built around a steady diet of lecture-based learning. Soft skills, such as creative problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration, are often given short shrift." (Nature, Editorial, 2015)
In place of an understanding of natural phenomena and how the methods of science work, students in traditionally taught science classes gain, according to the NRC's A Framework for K-12 Science Education, only "naive conceptions of the nature of scientific inquiry and the impression that science is simply a body of isolated facts." (Quinn, Helen R., Schweingruber, Heidi, Keller, Thomas, & others, p. 41)
Not only do students acquire a distorted understanding of the STEM disciplines, they apparently lose interest in future STEM-related careers. One study of a sample of 17,000 students who had enrolled in a STEM discipline revealed that only 2 in 5 either achieved a STEM degree or were still enrolled in STEM after six years later. (Waldrop, Mitchel, 2015)
The alternative learning system singled out in Building the 21st Century Scientist is "active learning." Active learning is a short-hand way to describe "a diverse range of methods that have been sweeping through the world's undergraduate science classes. Some are complex, immersive exercises...But there are also team-based exercises...as well as simple, carefully tailored questions that students in a crowded lecture hall might respond to through hand-held 'clickers'." The commonality among these methods is that each challenges the student to grapple with scientific thinking, and, according to a huge body of research, "gain a much deeper understanding of the science." (Waldrop, 2015)
A meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing examination scores or failure rates in undergraduate STEM courses under traditional lecturing versus active learning showed that students in traditional lecture classes were 1.5 times more likely to fail than if they were in a class using "active learning" strategies. The analyses provide evidence that the active learning strategies work in all of the STEM disciplines, as well as in classes of all sizes, course types, and levels; the learning is particularly beneficial in small classes. The strategies support increased student performance on "concept inventories." (Freeman, et.al.)
So large is the body of evidence in favor of "active learning" that Clarissa Dirks, a microbiologist and the co-chair of the U. S. National Academies Scientific Teaching Alliance, asserts that "At this point it is unethical to teach any other way." (Waldrop, 2015)
That "active learning" actually works in the "real world" can be seen in the case of the University of Illinois' Physics Department that redeveloped its undergraduate physics classes beginning in 1995. As the change was described in a 1997 article, in 1995 the department realized that while the current system was apparently working for most of its students, "recent physics education research has made painfully clear, traditional physics pedagogy has often been surprisingly ineffective in conveying conceptual understanding as distinct from rote learning and formulae manipulation." (Campbell, Elliot, & Gladding, 1997)
The article recounting the department's efforts to completely restructured the University's physics courses between 1995 and 1997 makes the point that the reform was not just an exercise that "rocked the boat" but was instead an activity akin to "parallel parking an aircraft carrier."
The restructuring had three goals: to stress conceptual understanding as well as problem-solving skills, to provide many "paths to this understanding" that would accommodate the diversity of how students learn, and to make the students active participants in each pathway.
As the authors put it, "It has been an exhilarating experience." (Campbell, Elliot, & Gladding, 1997)
Now, nearly twenty years later, courses continue to evolve in the "active learning model."
The development of new technologies such as web-based interactive Prelectures have been incorporated into the courses.
Prelectures are "web-based activities that engage the student in the presentation of new material," accessed by students using their web browsers to view animated lecture slides. As the student proceeds through the presentation, she is presented with a (usually conceptual multiple-choice question)...if the student answers correctly, she is given an explanation of the answer and can proceed...if the student answers incorrectly, she is given an explanation of why their choice is incorrect. Depending on the specific implementation, the student is either immediately given another try at the question or is presented with a different question that must be answered correctly before getting another try at the original question. In any case, once the student answers the initial question correctly, she can proceed to the next slide.
To sustain the research-based approach to physics education, there is now a formal team, The Physics Education Research (PER) whose task is to continue to use research to understand, how to teach physics, and to apply physics knowledge. The members of the team are drawn from both the Physics Department and the University’s College of Education. The range of research includes topics such as the role of mathematics and reflection; perceptual issues with physical diagrams; learning transfer; and educational assessment. The group applies their findings to the ongoing development of web-based instructional materials including “interactive examples, prelectures, and smartPhysics.”
The case of the University of Illinois revision of the physics courses demonstrates the fact that moving from the current learning system to one consistent with the science of learning requires a systemic effort. The changes in how students were taught must also account for the work that the professors, post-docs, and graduate students who teach the courses are required to do as faculty in a research university; the teachers are also expected to maintain a research agenda and publish along with their teaching duties.
The evolution of a research-based physics learning system over the nearly twenty years at the University of Illinois is evidence that such reform is both possible and sustainable.
Building the 21st Century Scientist (2015). Nature, July 15, 2015.
Campbell, D. K., Elliot, C. M., & Gladding, G. E. (1997). Parallel Parking an Aircraft Carrier::Revising the Calculus-Based Introductory Physics Sequence at Illinois. Forum on Education.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jorrdt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23). doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111
Quinn, Helen R., Schweingruber, Heidi, Keller, Thomas, & others, A. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: National Research Council of the National Academies.
Waldrop, M., Mitchel. (2015). Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right. Nature: International weekly journal of science, 523(7560), 1-21.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.