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STEM instructors follow the evidence

8 May 2019

Penn State is an R1 University, so named by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education to indicate that it is one of roughly 100 doctorate offering universities in the United States that engages in the highest level of research activity. R1 universities provide graduate education through the doctorate level, award more than 20 doctorates annually, and receive considerable federal support for research, among other criteria. Much has been said about Penn State’s research prowess, but one underreported element of such a university is that it offers a full range of undergraduate programs. A distinguishing factor within the Eberly College of Science is its commitment to providing students across the life, physical, and mathematical sciences a top-notch academic experience.

“The Eberly College of Science is the home at Penn State for the basic math and research education enterprise,” said Mary Beth Williams, senior associate dean for undergraduate education. “It’s home for teaching undergraduates and graduates about what it is to be scientists and mathematicians. It’s the home for researchers and students to come together and to push the frontiers for what science and math are doing and really make a difference in our society.”

Meeting among faculty to learn how to engage students. Dean Cavener addressing a faculty workshop on retaining students.

Many of the top students in the nation seek out a science education at the Eberly College of Science. The level of academic talent among first-year science students walking into the classroom at the beginning of every semester is exceptional.

“The students who we admit have been hugely successful in high school,” said Williams. “Many of them have never known what it means not to get an A, but when they enter into the college environment, the level of academic rigor is increased, and this can be a challenge to students who may have never been faced with such a high level of expectations.”

The level of what is expected can be overwhelming to even exceptional students, and the rate of attrition by junior year is concerning. Attempts to engage students in research experiences outside the classroom, study abroad, and other efforts seem to be working. Among the students who reach their junior year in the Eberly College of Science, 74 percent of them have either studied abroad or participated in a laboratory research experience, which has helped them maintain a level of achievement and engagement that is likely to carry them through to graduation. However, a growing group of faculty believe that these engagement efforts alone are not enough and more is required to help all students achieve their academic potential.

“We need to do a better job at helping students be successful, to persist, and to keep them in science,” said Williams.

Workshop participants listen to discussions and participate in problem-solving assignments.A wide angle photo of the faculty workshop.

A growing trend in higher education is the emphasis on active learning. While large classrooms holding hundreds of students are not uncommon in places like 101 Thomas Building, what is happening in those classrooms is changing. Fewer and fewer instructors are lecturing for an entire hour, using PowerPoint slides, with the expectation that students will take notes, go to their dorms, study, and return later and ace a test. This is not the best way of learning.

It is generally accepted that students learn about 20 percent of what they hear and 30 percent of what they see, but 70 percent of what they discuss, 80 percent of what they experience, and 95 percent of what they teach others. What’s the big difference between the effectiveness of learning in these different environments? It’s active learning, a style of teaching that puts the student at the heart of the lesson and gives him or her the opportunity to engage with the content, sort it out, and digest it in a way that becomes part of their encyclopedia of knowledge to apply to their career.

“It’s clear that students learn more when you engage them in the classroom,” said Wendy Hanna-Rose, professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “The Center for Excellence in Science Education has a vision to train and encourage faculty to be able to successfully engage all students in every single classroom.”

Making the leap to active learning is not a natural next step for academicians who may have reached their position due to their exceptional abilities to learn in other ways like didactic lectures or by hitting the stacks in Pattee Library. But for scientists, who follow the evidence to make new discoveries, gaining a better understanding about the way that students learn is a powerful lesson in using evidence to the advantage of the learner.

“As scientists, we have a natural bent toward using the evidence to guide us, so I’m optimistic that more scientists will incorporate active learning in their teaching practices when they understand the research done by the cognitive psychologists” said Hanna-Rose.

Several participants review potential course content on a display at the Dreamery.

In May 2018, 39 Eberly College of Science faculty met in the Penn State Dreamery, a modern learning laboratory for inspired learning experiences in the Shields Building, for a week of learning how to teach using evidence-based practices. The workshop, facilitated by Hanna-Rose, showed faculty evidence of how students learn and they were given the opportunity to design active learning experiences to engage students more deeply in the materials in order to get better results.

“When evidence-based teaching arose, I thought it was just jargon because it implied that what I was teaching was not based in evidence,” said Paul Babitzke, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Babitzke normally teaches a class of 250 students where attendance drops off dramatically after the first week largely because students don’t see the value in attending.

“I need to convince my students that it’s worthwhile attending my class,” said Babitzke. “After having participated in the workshop, I now know the kinds of things that I can do in the classroom to engage the students and the class will be more interactive.”

Jackie Bortiatynski, the director of the Center for Excellence in Science Education, the producer of the Evidence-Based Teaching Workshop, indicated that Babitzke’s experience was not unique and that many more faculty needed to be exposed to the types of teaching techniques that could be used in the classroom. However, Bortiatynski cautions that the onus for success does not lie solely on the shoulders of faculty. Rather, the students have an equally important role in this endeavor’s success.

“We are the coaches and they are the athletes,” said Bortiatynski. “This is a team sport. They need to interact with us as much as we do with them. It’s an iterative process, and to be honest, we will learn as much from it as they do.”

A second workshop is scheduled for May 2019. Future plans are to hold the workshop at least annually.

“I think the most powerful thing this college can do,” Williams said “is to provide our students with access to education that is deeply intertwined with our research, so they are learning the foundations, the tools, and the language of science and math and they know how to apply it to the cutting edge of research. And that’s where we want to be.”