New Ways to Teach Science

Computer-Based Calculus and Virtual Chem Labs Are Among Innovations

by Robert Sanders

Do you have painful memories of freshman calculus? Did general chemistry put you to sleep? Did you complete the introductory physics problem sets and still not understand the material?

If any of this rings true, you weren't alone. The "chalk and talk" style of teaching has sent many potential science, math and engineering majors packing.

Change is on the horizon, though. The campus now is involved in a record number of projects to improve undergraduate teaching, particularly in "gateway" courses that can make or break a student.

"The external funding today to improve undergraduate teaching is unprecedented," says physical sciences Dean P. Buford Price. "And the amazing thing is that this is a grass roots effort. It's just springing up in many different departments."

In mathematics, for example, introductory calculus students were offered computer-based calculus laboratories for the first time last fall, a dramatic shift from traditional chalkboard discussion sections.

Also last fall in Chem 1A, homework included playing and experimenting in a new multimedia CD-ROM virtual lab, part of a modular concept being tested around the country.

And in both physics and chemistry, graduate student instructors are learning to change their teaching style so as to engage the students in more discussions, with less blackboard lecturing.

Each of these new projects was launched with funding from the National Science Foundation, which has made improving undergraduate science education one of its primary goals. At NSF's request the campus will host a regional workshop titled "Improving the Gateway Courses in Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics" on how to implement the goals of the initiative.

"NSF is trying to do something about what it considers an outmoded style of teaching," Price says. "We don't want to do away with large lectures, which will still have a place in university teaching. But with 'chalk and talk' many students don't go to class, many fall asleep. It's not interactive."

By making classes more interactive, students become more confident and participate more in the class, he says. Studies have shown that discussing concepts -- or even better, explaining them to a fellow student -- makes for better learning.

One problem has always been that students can successfully complete the homework yet totally miss the concepts behind it, said Bruce Birkett, a lecturer in physics who introduced intensive discussion sections to Physics 7A in the fall. Now, rather than concentrating on the mechanics of solving problems, graduate student instructors pose problems for discussion that illustrate concepts.

At the beginning of the semester, Birkett trained a small group of physics GSIs in the philosophy behind "intensive" discussion sections, and encouraged all to drop in on one another's classes to observe. Videotaping sections also helped them critique themselves.

"The response has been very positive," he adds. "Some incoming students have even decided to postpone taking physics 7B until next year, when we offer intensive discussions again."

After a lively discussion with graduate student Partha Mamidipudi, engineering freshman Deepak Agarwal was enthusiastic. "During lectures you don't always have time to fully understand everything. Intensive discussion sections help you understand the concepts better."

"It really makes a difference," added freshman Michael McGehee.

The idea of intensive discussion sections has been kicking around for a while. Its value was proven in the 1970s by former Berkeley mathematician and MacArthur "genius" award winner Uri Treisman and mathematics professor Leon Henkin, who introduced the technique as an attempt to keep underrepresented minorities from dropping out of science, math and engineering. The effort, part of the Professional Development Program or PDP, was so successful that Treisman, now at the University of Texas, has spread the concept around the country.

With a willingness on the part of the National Science Foundation to spend money to boost undergraduate teaching, Price saw an opportunity extend the concept broadly. NSF last year provided the campus with $100,000 per year for two years to get the project off the ground.

"Beginning students can be troubled and confused," says Herb Strauss, professor and associate dean of chemistry, who is introducing the idea of intensive discussion sections to Chem 1 (general) and Chem 3 (organic). "Many complain bitterly that chemistry teaching is dull, especially if they are not chemistry majors. This is a real attempt to deal with this problem."

A more thorough overhaul of classroom teaching is the goal of the ModularChem program. With a five-year, $3.3 million grant from NSF, former chemistry Dean Brad Moore and chemist Susan Kegley are coordinating a national effort to revitalize the teaching of introductory chemistry by bringing real world situations into the classroom.

The ModularChem Consortium plans to produce some 25 short modules, each about three weeks long, that teachers can mix and match to create a five-module course that covers all the basic concepts of introductory chemistry.

"These modules are really interesting to students, and we get a strong response from them," Kegley said. "Suddenly they see the complexity of science, and they learn how to look critically at data. They look at science as it really is, not as a formula to calculate a number."

Moore tried one of these at the beginning of his 120-student honors chemistry course last fall, a teaching module centered around the automobile air bag. Students test their understanding of the concepts with a novel kind of homework, an interactive CD-ROM featuring a virtual office and virtual lab in a hypothetical air bag company.

The interactivity comes as soon as students knock on the boss's door, when a video of chemistry professor and codeveloper Angelica Stacy pops up to assign a task -- to find a gas mixture that will make a good airbag propellant.

While the CD-ROM is fun, it prepares students for the real lab in which they measure expanding gases. Everything is tied to the lectures, which incorporate conceptual questions that students get to discuss and later explain to the whole class.

Based on that experiment, parts of the module were redesigned in preparation for testing at another institution this semester, Kegley said.

To give the modular concept a rigorous scientific test, Stacy and Kegley will team teach Chem 1A in spring 1998. Half the students will be taught the traditional way with lectures and laboratories, and half will be taught via five MC2 modules.

Kegley doesn't expect an overnight change in chemistry teaching, since professors tend to be resistant to new teaching techniques. But the modules are designed so they can be adopted gradually.

It's a big change to go to something new and more interactive, to the extent where students are designing their own experiments," she acknowledged.

Aside from NSF, private foundations and companies also are investing in projects to improve undergraduate education. The General Electric Fund just gave the campus $450,000 over three years to restructure lower division courses in math, physical sciences and engineering to incorporate "technology-enhanced learning." The goal is to use animation, visualization, simulation and design cases to integrate calculus, chemistry, physics and engineering courses.

"It's an exciting time with all this going on," Birkett says, "there is a real thrust to improve education."


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
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