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Davis, California

Monday, April 22, 2024

UC Davis faculty aim to increase interactivity in science classes


Courtesy Photo: www.iAMSTEM.ucdavis.edu

Attention UC Davis science students: expect a drastic shake-up in your lectures and be prepared to get called on at any moment in class.

The UC Davis-based project iAMSTEM HUB (interdisciplinary Agriculture Medicine Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Hub) has been conducting experiments and studies to measure how the interactions between faculty and students through different teaching styles can affect the outcome of test scores and student continuity within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) courses.

Project researchers have noticed an increasing number of high-performing UC Davis students leaving the field of STEM during their second or third year in the major. This apparent trend is not solely confined to UC Davis. The National Center of Education Statistics released a report in 2013 stating that 48 percent of bachelor’s degree students and 69 percent of associate’s degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 had left these fields by spring 2009.

Conceptualized and approved three years ago, iAMSTEM was created by Marco Molinaro based on his work with Biophotonics, a company that focuses on helping high school, undergraduate and community college students get access to internships and career resources in the field of science.

iAMSTEM generates data on which students remain in STEM majors and which students leave by looking at the instructional quality of a class, the feeling of belonging for students, administrative policies and, in general, what the instructional experience is like.

“The most common year for students to leave STEM is during their second year,” said Molinaro. “There is a big transition for students: a new community, new expectations and they may not see the excitement or relevance of large format classes.”

Molinaro stated that the project’s ultimate goal is to optimize the methods and tactics that work for a broader range of students and said that he is pleased to announce that iAMSTEM has conducted various experimental measures to try and detect significant data that can further the project’s staff towards its goal.

iAMSTEM has implemented the C-LASS test, an evaluation taken by students in introductory science courses, such as Chemistry 2A. The tests ask students to fill out an evaluation in the beginning and end of the course and gauges how well they can think like professional chemists. This information is later used to try and measure if students understand the content of the class and if they are engaged in a resourceful way.

iAMSTEM has also hired UCON (Undergraduate Classroom Observation Network) agents, who sit in classes and make diligent observations of what students and the faculty are doing in two-minute observational windows.

“They use an application to track what actually happens in the course,” said Christopher Pagliarulo, iAMSTEM Associate Director of Instruction and Assessment. “The best and only way to get a real perspective on instruction is to watch.”

This mobile application available on Smartsite for those with access contains options for student responses such as asking questions, taking notes or dozing off, as well as options for what the faculty is doing, such as asking group and clicker questions or lecturing.

Molinaro feels that many instructors of STEM classes at UC Davis teach using a polished routine that is not conducive for engaging the students in the field.

“We want to help faculty understand the literature on interactive teaching that is out there,” said Molinaro. “We want to work with faculty and say ‘let’s measure how things are working. Let’s measure an experience and see how it worked and for whom did it work.’”

The founders of iAMSTEM attempt to understand the perspective and environment surrounding students in STEM classes and whether these environments discourage these students from continuing their participation in their respective majors.

“Our hypothesis is that when you have a better experience with your class and feel efficacy, you won’t have such a bad feeling about chemistry and maybe decide to continue in the future,” said Molinaro. “We’re not trying to make more STEM majors. Our goal is to have people make the decision to leave for the right reasons. We don’t want people leaving for the wrong reasons.”

iAMSTEM has studied research done by Elaine Seymour, the director of Ethnography and Evaluation Research at University of Colorado at Boulder, and others that suggest that if students don’t feel like they belong or if the instruction feels irrelevant, they are more likely to change majors.

“We can look at the performance data and see if there is a difference between how women performed or how underrepresented minorities performed,” said Molinaro.

“So we are able to see if there’s potential issues with that and look how an instructor interacts with a specific group of people.”

The first step of iAMSTEM’s approach in improving the overall education experience is to advise the faculty to understand the literature already out there.

“The general principle we’re trying to get now is focused on getting students to practice and give them feedback,” said Pagliarulo. “That’s how brains work. How we are teaching now with pure lecture is not how brains work.”

In general, students do better with more interactive type of approaches, frequent feedback and low stakes testing, according to Molinaro.

Molinaro and his research team sympathize with UC Davis faculty for not having the research on various teaching styles readily accessible to them.

“Faculty care a lot about their students’ learning,” said Molinaro. “However, they haven’t really been trained in the literature and haven’t studied ways of improving student outcomes.”

Pagliarulo added that UC Davis professors must focus on their research, and often they aren’t encouraged to expand, implement or study different, interactive ways of teaching.

“That’s time they’re not investing in their research and the research papers that are required for them to keep their jobs,” he said.

UC Davis biology professor Mitchell Singer works alongside the researchers of iAMSTEM and has taken active measures to implement a more interactive environment in his Biology 2A lectures.

Singer said that he structures his teaching to allow students to integrate the information that they read about for homework and put this information into context to build a bigger picture of the material. He also cites increasing potential in his students but emphasizes the lack of student interest and understanding of what he and his colleagues are trying to do in their lectures.

“One of the hardest things to do is to get students to buy into what we’re doing,” said Singer. “Students really can go beyond what we’re asking of them, but they sort of lack the self-confidence to understand that. As a class overall, they don’t like this approach.”

Chemistry professor Catherine Uvarov also recently restructured the layout of her introductory chemistry course, Chemistry 2A.

“I’ve turned my classroom into a flipped-classroom approach,” said Uvarov. “I ask lots of clicker questions to try and get students to answer questions directly.”

Both Uvarov and Singer use “cold-calling” as a technique to keep students focused in class.

“We do cold-calling on students,” said Singer. “We ask general questions and have students talk in small groups and present their answers to the class, and oftentimes, ask other students to comment on that comment.”

Uvarov has noticed a population of students who aren’t particularly keen with this kind of cold-calling that requires the students to be more attentive and prepared.

“I don’t feel like it’s very conducive,” said first-year biological science major Sucheng Kuo, currently enrolled in Uvarov’s Chemistry 2A course. “Students are just thinking about if they get called on and are not really taking things in.”

Uvarov added that she believes a major problem with the large size classes is that students begin feeling unimportant, like “just another number.”

With a more interactive and intrusive approach to teaching a lecture, Uvarov attempts to give students the ability to understand their relevance relative to their instructor, peers and the material.

Uvarov said that she is motivated by her students’ performance on tests and the questions they bring to office hours, indicating that they are thinking at a higher level than when it was just a traditional lecture setting.

“If students learn the skill sets we are trying to teach them, they will have a much easier time and a much more productive experience in college,” Singer said. “The real issue is helping us find ways to get students to buy in and take a chance. We want them to see that we’re not trying to keep them down, we’re really trying to help them.”

Courtesy Photo: www.iAMSTEM.ucdavis.edu


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