'Making Scientists'

Authors of new book discuss ways to improve teaching and learning in the STEM fields.

April 16, 2013

Everyone seems to agree that education in the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- needs work, and all the more so when it comes to the women and underrepresented minority students who are the least likely to persist in those subjects. But measurable progress -- or even a clear idea of how to achieve it -- is often hard to come by.

Northwestern University can boast of both progress and hard data thanks to its Gateway Science Workshop, which began in the 1990s as a small pilot in biology and was soon expanded to hundreds of students and a variety of science and math courses. Some 15 years after its inception, the program has not only helped thousands of students, but has also provided a wealth of data on what works for which students, and why.

In their new book, Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching (Harvard University Press), Gregory Light and Marina Micari of Northwestern's Searle Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning use lessons drawn from the success of the GSW and its spinoff, the Science Research Workshop, to outline ways that every institution can improve STEM instruction.

Light, the Searle Center's director, and Micari, its associate director, answered Inside Higher Ed's e-mailed questions about the GSW and SRW programs and what other educators can learn from them.

Q: How did the Gateway Science Workshop start? How does it work?

GSW started when a faculty member in biology saw some of his bright students struggling. He noticed that they tended to work alone, and thought they might do better if they studied with others. He approached the Searle Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning, and together they researched the problem of supporting at-risk students, and found that group study held the most promise. In 1997 they launched a pilot program which put students into groups to work on course-related problems together. The program started in biology only, and over the years has gradually added courses and disciplines, now representing two schools at the university. We now run GSW workshops in introductory biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, introductory physics, calculus, and engineering analysis. All of these courses can be considered “gateways” to further science study or to the pre-medical track.

Workshops run each quarter. In the workshops, students meet weekly in groups of 5 to 8, along with a trained peer facilitator. The facilitator is an undergraduate who has taken the relevant course and done well in it, and who shows promise as a learning guide: we screen facilitators for their interpersonal skills and desire to help others learn. During the workshops, the groups work on challenging conceptual-style problems written by the faculty; these problems are designed to encourage profound understanding of many of the key concepts covered in the courses.

Q: How does the Science Research Workshop differ from the GSW? What are its goals?

The science research workshop utilizes many of the principles employed in GSW: weekly groups, peer facilitators, collaboration, community but instead of students working together on conceptual problems related to a course, the students are working on developing an authentic research proposal related to the original research taking place in a faculty lab. The workshop is fully situated in what scientists do: develop research proposals which if they are successful will be funded – in this case in labs over the following summer. In this way their work moves from learning to think more deeply and scientifically about specific concepts to learning, thinking and working with scientific concepts in an authentic research context.

Q: In what ways have these programs improved student outcomes? How do you know?

The learning outcomes which we have assessed are numerous. The key outcomes focus on their achievement – primarily in terms their knowledge and understanding in term of grades – and on their retention in the course sequence courses. When compared with students who have not participated, GSW students generally achieve higher grades and complete the course sequence. And this holds true when results are controlled for such factors as G.P.A., SAT math scores, motivation (as scored on motivation inventories). More qualitative studies, including conducting interviews and focus groups with students suggest that these workshops contribute to reducing their anxiety as well as improving their confidence, motivation and particularly assisting them in taking deeper approaches to their study, with a focus on understanding the concepts as opposed to learning them by rote.

Q: How would you define the "best science learning," and how does it differ from typical college learning?

The “best science learning” is – in most ways – no different from the best learning, period.  It requires an environment in which students engage actively in solving authentic problems – that is, problems that mirror the real problems of the discipline.  This usually means that they are not simply sitting and listening to lecture throughout the quarter.  It also requires a sense of safety, so that students are not afraid to take risks in their learning, and are not afraid to ask for help – and, probably even more important, so that students do not feel they are constantly in intense competition with one another. The sense of safety is especially important for students who may be concerned about how they are perceived academically, as can be the case for underrepresented minority students, women (in some fields), and first-generation students, among others.

Light: The best science learning is learning how scientists learn.  It includes recognizing that learning is not simply an individual activity undertaken alone, but rather takes place in communities which provide opportunities for students to engage with interesting and relevant problems in a way in which they are encouraged to talk to each other, challenge each other, share different approaches, make mistakes, correct each other, and provide meaningful feedback to each other. The best science learning allows students to recognize more clearly the relationship of their scientific problems and challenges to those which the more senior members of their community are concerned with.

Q: The retention of female and minority students is an ongoing challenge in the STEM fields. What are some lessons from the GSW and SRW on how these students can better be retained?

Many of the women and underrepresented students who have taken part in our programs have highlighted the comfortable atmosphere that the workshops offer, explaining that they were much more likely to ask questions in the groups than they were to ask in class or to go to faculty office hours. We believe that the small size and collaborative feel of the workshops plays an important role here. Allowing students to get to know one another, and to develop small learning communities, can go far in countering the anonymity of large lecture classes. We also train the peer facilitators to ensure that the workshops have a democratic feel – so that, ideally, no voice has more legitimacy than any other. In other words, even if one member takes a faulty approach to a problem, his or her explanations and experience can benefit the whole group. In this kind of environment, students who may otherwise feel marginalized are helped to feel they are full and important members of the group.

Q: What are some of the most important factors in improving STEM teaching and learning?

Probably the single most important factor is active learning. Usually, this means moving from straight lecture – particularly the kind of lecture that is jam-packed with facts in each class session – to lecture mixed with opportunities for student engagement in discussion and problem-solving.  The discussion and problem-solving, though, need to be meaningful, and they need to be guided or scaffolded, so that students are not walking in the dark, but rather have some sense of where they are headed and how to get there.  This generally cannot happen without another important factor, which is thinning out the amount of sheer information students need to absorb in each class session and over the term. Thinning out the content can be very difficult for faculty, but with some effort they are usually able to identify the core concepts they want students to understand, and to build the course from there.

Q: What initial steps might you recommend for STEM faculty members who would like to improve their teaching but may already feel overworked and under-resourced?

A good way to start is just to try one or two active-learning activities or assignments in a course. This can take the form of a quick in-class activity or a more substantial assignment. For example, students can be assigned a particular problem or question to research in groups, and develop a short presentation to share with the class either live or online through a blog or wiki. In this case, it’s important that the class have some motivation for engaging with these shared projects, for instance through a requirement that they critique 2–3 other projects using some pre-established criteria.  An in-class activity might be working in groups of 3–4 to address a problem or question given in the lecture.There are a variety of ways to have groups share their discussions and answers, for instance by asking volunteer groups to report out and then discussing those answers, or by having all groups submit their answers (either on paper or in an online forum) and later choosing a few examples to discuss in class. One critical element here, again, is safety: Students need to feel that they won’t be penalized or ridiculed for sharing an incorrect answer in front of the group.

Light: A relatively simple approach to large class teaching is to “problematize” the classroom.  Think of your course not in terms of a large range of facts (answers to problems) which scientists have discovered over the years but rather in terms of the key problems in the particular area of the field being addressed by the course.  Key problems are those whose solutions are meaningful and conceptually rich to science and our communities.  A curriculum of problems allows the faculty to address the really important concepts of the field. It also allows student to become enquirers and requires the teacher to give the students opportunities to answer the problem – preferably in groups.

Q: What steps would you recommend for administrators who would like to see better STEM teaching and learning at their institutions?

One of the most important things administrators can do is to demonstrate to faculty that they believe in and desire pedagogical change. Even the most reluctant faculty members will buy into a project of pedagogical change when they see that high-level administrators are on board. This means encouraging faculty to participate in teaching & learning activities (e.g., through the institution’s teaching and learning center or through other workshop or speaker opportunities), talking directly with faculty about the importance of good teaching, and recognizing and rewarding faculty who pay attention to teaching and who strive to improve as teachers. This last point requires some change in the faculty reward system, which may be the most difficult part of the system to change, but which is probably the most powerful.

Light: Recognize that faculty practices are all based in learning: that research and teaching, for example, are simply two practices aimed at learning – albeit at different levels. This recognition should emphasize the similarity in the nature of the learning being enhanced by both practices – deeper and active and focused on conceptual and critical understanding. Recognition for advancing learning in both these domains needs to be more carefully balanced. Advancing society’s learning through research is important but so also is advancing similar forms of learning in our students – building our research capacity. Teaching which furthers our research mission in this way should be widely shared and given status and recognition through higher education reward systems and through the everyday practices of our academic communities.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top