UO Science Literacy Program excels through active learning

Vandegrift presents a “Teaching Tidbit” (credit: Steven Robinow, Univ. Hawaii)
Vandegrift presents a “Teaching Tidbit” (credit: Steven Robinow, Univ. Hawaii)

During a class earlier this year for Biology/Chemistry 140, biology professor Judith Eisen flashed this question on the front screen: Which of the following experimental results would allow you to conclude that a mutation in a specific gene caused disease symptoms?

A. Finding a correlation between the mutation and the disease.
B. Making the same mutation in an animal model and showing that this has disease symptoms.
C. Both A and B.
D. Neither.

Students answered on “clickers,” handheld devices that look like television remote controls. A graph illustrated their answers on screen. Most got it—“B”; but as other students explained their choices, Eisen was persuaded to refine the language of the question on the spot—it had left some wiggle room, the class decided. “C” might have been correct, too.

Eisen loves these unscripted moments: “My favorite thing is when a student’s question, seemingly from left field, takes the class in an unexpected direction,” she said.

This is the energy – and unpredictability – of the Science Literacy Program.

Funded through the UO and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the new program employs active, inquiry-based teaching methods to improve scientific awareness and general science literacy for non-science students. It was begun by faculty across the physics, biology, chemistry and geological sciences departments.

Key to the initiative is replacing lectures with efforts that get students active – with clicker questions, small- and large-group discussions and multimedia that pull students out of their chairs and force them to move around a room, talking to each other, evaluating and weighing in.

“It’s clear people learn better when they’re active,” Eisen said. “That’s why we’re constantly checking in with our students and getting them to do things, to work in groups and solve problems. Even if a lecture was really cool, how much can you really remember an hour, a week, a year later?”

SLP courses nudge faculty to teach in new ways and challenge students to find their own answers, Associate Director Elly Vandegrift said.

“Scientists don’t have all the answers, but we know how to look for them—and we’re going to show you,” Vandegrift said. “Students who take our courses will become global citizens, parents, teachers, and voters, and we want them to have the skills to be able to access and assess scientific information.”

Vandegrift and Sierra Dawson, a senior lecturer and graduate athletic training program director in Human Physiology, were recently named National Academies Education Fellows for 2013-14 and attended the academies’ Summer Institute in Undergraduate Education.

During the weeklong institute, 49 faculty from 19 colleges and universities across the West Coast worked in discipline-specific teams to create and present an active learning “Teachable Tidbit.” As part of their fellowship, Vandegrift and Dawson will share their experience by facilitating science education workshops for the larger campus community.

“The data is overwhelming that active learning in a student-centered classroom – as opposed to a lecture-centric-teacher-centered classroom – is the most effective way for students to learn science,” Vandegrift said.

Many SLP courses are taught in teams and across disciplines, and each team always includes faculty members and either graduate students and undergraduates, or both. The program’s undergraduate “SLP Scholars” get experience as they consider teaching careers and the graduate student “SLP Fellows” – who are committed to teaching –consider the program to be job training.

Marine biology major Dylan Cottrell was part of the teaching team for a geological sciences course; he circulated during class meetings, joining small groups as they tackled issues and problems.

"Science teaching shouldn’t be just ‘this is a fact—The Way It Is—and this, this, this, and this, too. Now go memorize,’” Cottrell said. “The things people ‘know’ today can be disproved tomorrow.”

Another aspect of SLP is “flipping the classroom”— devoting out-of-class time to the technology-aided delivery of course content to free up class time for interaction. Chemistry professor Mark Lonergan, for example, is developing videos to accompany his Chemistry 111 course, “Introduction to Chemical Principles.”

The series – which features animated drawings, computer-generated models and Lonergan’s voice affably explaining his calculations – will free up class time for drawing exercises and peer teaching in small groups. Lonergan enjoyed the challenge of thinking about how to communicate his material clearly.

The Science Literacy Program “empowers faculty to do what they think is important,” he said. “And it opens up a faculty exploration and dialogue around best teaching practice.”

- from “The Science of Good Teaching: Program Invites Wide-Ranging Innovation, by Lee Rumbarger, director of the UO Teaching Effectiveness Program