TEP logoThe Science of Good Teaching: Program Invites Wide-Ranging Innovation « Teaching Effectiveness Program

The Science of Good Teaching: Program Invites Wide-Ranging Innovation


It’s 2 o’clock on Monday of Week Nine. Professor of Biology Judith Eisen and Associate Professor of Chemistry Andy Berglund’s Biology/Chemistry 140: “Science, Policy, and Biology” students—just over 90 of them—are settling into pod-style tables dotting HEDCO 220. Today’s topic: genetic testing and gene modification. This is one of 21 new or significantly revised courses developed as part of the UO Science Literacy Program’s (SLP) four-year, $1.5 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant aimed at boosting public competence and interest in science through revived general education teaching. In addition to these courses, the SLP supports a weekly reading group about science pedagogy and a major assessment project.

First, Berglund reminds the students to complete end-of-term surveys for participation points: these are similar to surveys they took at the term’s start, gauging their science literacy, confidence, and intellectual risk-taking. More than regular teaching evaluations, these will show the teaching team—which also includes a graduate student SLP Fellow and three undergraduate SLP Scholars—what impact they’ve made. And Berglund invites students to a screening of the 1993 science fiction film Jurassic Park—after all, next week the group is discussing the recent elucidation of extinct species’ genome sequences.

Class formally begins with a question flashed 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 answer on their “clickers,” personal response devices that look like television remote controls. A graph illustrating their answers appears on screen. Most get it—“B.” But as Eisen engages students who, undaunted by the large room, raise their hands to explain their choices, she refines the language of the question on the spot—it had left some wiggle room, the class decides. “C” might have been a correct choice, 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 says. She welcomes the energy, physical movement, and unpredictability of SLP courses—tools like Powerpoint have unintentionally drained some of that away, she reflects.

The rest of this particular class meeting weaves together action and presentation. It includes more clicker questions; small- and large-group discussion; and multimedia, highly contextualized mini-lectures on gene therapy: gene therapy as a “hot” field for researchers and topic of intense public interest, news clips of successful and failed (and fatal) experiments in gene therapy, bright cartoons depicting how viruses can be used as delivery agents of new DNA strains (“like tiny hypodermic syringes,” Eisen says), and an explanation of how clinical trials work in the United States.

Courting action—and a bit of chaos—takes some getting used to. Environmental Studies instructor Dr. Alexandra Rempel laughs remembering the first day of her SLP course Geology 110: “People, Rocks, and Fire,” which she co-teaches with Associate Professor of Geological Sciences Alan Rempel: “We had only 15 slides—just 15—for an 80-minute class. ‘What would they do?’ we wondered. ‘Would they do what we hoped, or just sit there?’” That first day, graphs on butcher paper lined the lecture hall walls, all representing population dynamics. Right out of the gate, students were meant to circulate, talking to each other and voting on how to label the axes.

“It’s clear people learn better when they’re active,” says Eisen. “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?” Eisen asks.

Rempel, who scaled her course up from a small seminar in the Robert D. Clark Honors College, says that, at first, her team faced “a certain wariness” from the students. “They just wanted to know ‘what do you want from us?’” Traditional schooling has “trained them to be quiet and listen,” she says. But she’s been excited to see them become increasingly “present” in the classroom: “we’re finding lots of evidence that curiosity is a developable skill.”

SLP Associate Director Elly Vandegrift agrees. “We’re changing how science is taught,” she says. And these courses nudge faculty and students alike just outside of their comfort zones: faculty are teaching in ways many never saw modeled in their own educations; students are challenged not just to expect The Answer from faculty, and from science more generally. “Scientists don’t have all the answers, but we know how to look for them—and we’re going to show you,” Vandegrift says.

“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. Just teaching them scientific facts will not prepare these students for making educated decisions in the future,” Vandegrift explains.


Making high-impact curricular, teaching practice, and teaching culture changes “needs to be a grassroots idea—it can’t be imposed from above,” Eisen explains. The idea to apply for an HHMI grant in the first place came from a series of informal faculty conversations across the science disciplines. “It’s hard—even impossible—for a lone person to forge ahead. You need a community of people who you can talk and look at scholarship with”; then, structures of administrative support should, ideally, be responsive to the faculty’s interest in change and “give credence to the idea that change takes time.” There can be pushback from students, and even from faculty evaluating each other’s teaching, if something unexpected is happening in the classroom—we needed “a lot of buy-in,” Eisen says.

The SLP cultivates community buy-in in two ways. First, some of the courses are taught in teams, often across disciplines (going as far afield and English and Journalism) and always across ranks; in other words, each team includes faculty members, and either graduate students and undergraduates, or both. Second, its “Teaching Journal Club,” co-led by the Teaching Effectiveness Program’s Dr. Julie Mueller and Vandegrift meets weekly to discuss research on science teaching and to model techniques, allowing ongoing multidisciplinary, cross-rank conversation.

“It’s really fun to team teach in the SLP—it’s not just ‘you do this block, I’ll do that block.’ We’re much more synthetic in how we critique ideas together and figure out what’s working,” says Eisen.

“We have a teaching staff of six—two faculty members, one graduate student SLP Fellow, and three undergraduate SLP Scholars,” says Rempel. “It’s hard to ignore that many people, especially four people near the students’ own ages who are devoting so much energy to the course,” she adds.

Indeed, Rempel’s course was particularly hard to ignore because, by beginning of Week Three, each of the 80 students was known by name by two people on the teaching team—the team decided this was important enough to devote some discussion group time to mnemonic name games. “Normally the class had good energy—and if we felt a lag, we’d ask the students about it directly. When we’d look at a student we knew, he or she couldn’t sit there and pretend to be invisible,” Rempel says. She says she surprised students early on by casually praising them by name: “you’ve been working really hard in class—‘how’d you know?’ they’d wonder.”

Marine biology major (Class of 2013) and SLP Scholar Dylan Cottrell was part of Rempel’s teaching team. He circulated during class meetings, joining small groups as they tackled issues and problems, and introduced activities in discussion section meetings. “I’m a liaison between the students and the faculty,” he says. “Many students are more comfortable telling me the issues they’re having difficulty with, and I tell my professors what seems to be working and what isn’t from the students’ view.”

The challenge of communicating scientific information literally hit home for Cottrell living with six housemates, and only one other science student—bridging the “scientist,” “humanist” divide was tough for the group of friends. “It became apparent to me that it can be hugely difficult to describe scientific concepts and processes in a way everyone can understand—but, with issues like renewable energy, for example, it’s urgent to try,” he says.

The SLP’s culture of participation and questioning extends in a positive way to how the course is taught more generally: “Students aren’t afraid to ask me, ‘Why are we doing this? Why is this important?’ I’m sometimes an avenue to get to the ‘why?’” Cottrell says, reflecting that these are healthy questions for undergraduates to consider—and questions for which the SLP team has meaningful answers.

Undergraduate SLP Scholars often are aiming for careers in K-12 teaching or academe, Vandegrift says. In addition to the teaching experience, they’re leaving the program able to “communicate science and, more generally, able to communicate something complex to a novice audience.” Undergraduates “know when they’ve had a really good teacher, but often can’t say why,” Vandegrift adds. They “often equate good teaching with some vague notion of ‘charisma,’ but the program gives them—SLP Scholars and students in these courses—a way to break that notion down into techniques and practices.”

The stakes are high for the graduate student SLP Fellows, like physics doctoral candidate Tyler Harvey. “For graduate students who ultimately want to teach undergraduates as the focus of our careers, the SLP is our job training. It’s exciting to find a community that sees teaching as a challenging activity, not just something we do on the side,” Harvey says.

As the SLP Fellow for Assistant Professor of Ben McMorran’s Physics 155 “Physics Behind the Internet” course (“we taught students physics by telling them we were teaching them about the Internet” says Harvey with a smile), Harvey had his first chance to influence every aspect of a course rather than inheriting a fixed syllabus and course materials.

The teaching team’s intentionality extended all the way down to the level of homework questions, Harvey says: “We wouldn’t just ask for calculations. Everything tied back to the central narrative of the course”—the story of the science behind and rippling implications of our everyday use of computers and the Internet. So, for example, a homework question might push into the ethical implications of mining for key minerals, cobalt and tantalum, in the Congo—“not a heavily regulated industry, to say the least,” Harvey says. A homework question might ask students to calculate the mining hours that went into the capacitors in their home computers.

Harvey particularly relishes the weekly journal club meetings, explaining that he’s regularly had conversations with undergraduates and professors about teaching that otherwise would have been rare or impossible. “At least once in every meeting, somebody brings to the conversation a relevant real teaching and learning experience related to the reading—that really grounds the discussion. It’s not highfalutin pedagogical theory, but theory in touch with practice,” Harvey explains.

The journal club email list has just crossed threshold of 200 subscribers representing 15 departments—96 people including undergraduate students, graduate students, librarians, academic support staff, and faculty attended meetings this year.

Are our students actually ‘scientifically literate?’

When the Associate Professor of Education Studies Ron Beghetto talks about “learning outcomes assessment,” the process seems vital and community building, not dull or imposed. Beghetto has partnered with the SLP to develop a creative, multi-stage assessment of the impact these courses have on students’ scientific literacy. “First the faculty had to determine in a structured way what ‘science literacy’ means,” he said. He surveyed the faculty on what they believed were behaviors characteristic of scientific literacy (SciLit) in undergraduate students.

Beghetto then compiled an initial list of 48 characteristics and asked faculty to rank them in importance–resulting in 25 characteristics that represented the faculty’s expert consensus. Beghetto has further reduced this list, using factor analysis, into eight core characteristics like “understands science as presented in popular media,” “understands how science works (e.g., the process of science, how scientists ask and answer questions using the scientific method),” and “can separate credible scientific information from opinion, conjecture, fabrication, and embellishments in advertisement.”

Beghetto and members of the SLP team also organized a faculty assessment workshop aimed at helping faculty incorporate the assessment of scientific literacy into existing assignments and activities. Participants brought examples of assignments and assessments that they already use in their courses. Faculty then worked on modifying those assignments to assess scientific literacy in their particular subject areas. Using an assigned article from Scientific American, for instance, to not only assess whether students can read and understand the scientific content represented in that article, but also to assess whether they can access more information about the topic, judge the quality of that information, and understand the relevance of that information to everyday life.

This approach differs from typical ready-made assessment approaches, which have been designed externally and may not fit the specific learning goals and subject matter taught in particular courses, Beghetto explains. The unique feature of this approach is that UO faculty, who design and teach SLP courses, serve as the primary source both for the SciLit attributes and for content-based assessments used to assess those attributes in their courses. “It’s often not feasible or effective to say ‘you need to include this externally-developed, ready-made assessment in your class,’” Beghetto said. “My approach is to help faculty slightly modify what they’re already doing, and to incorporate SciLit assessments in more explicit and purposeful ways.”

Beghetto, working in collaboration with the SLP team, has designed a student survey that several hundred SLP students complete at the beginning and end of the term meant to gauge their self-reported competence with these SciLit behaviors, their interest and confidence in science, their willingness to take intellectual-risks while learning science (“I ask questions in this class even when other students might think I was not as smart as them”), and their willingness to persist in learning science (“I plan on taking more science courses even when I don’t have to”).  A key feature of the survey includes embedded content-specific SciLit assignments, designed by SLP faculty (e.g., the Scientific American article assignment described earlier), which allows faculty to compare students’ self-assessments against actual performance. (In other words, students may have claimed that they “reject unsupported claims,” but the proof will be in the pudding of the content-based assignment.) All of the data can be explored across a range of demographics like major, GPA, and gender, ultimately giving faculty a rich sense of whether the courses are working, and how to make them work better for everyone, particularly students who are typically underrepresented in the sciences.

Flipping the classroom

Professor of Chemistry Mark Lonergan is preparing to “flip the classroom”—or devote out-of-class time to the technology-aided delivery of course content to free up class time for interactivity—as part of his 200-student Fall 2013 SLP class, Chemistry 111 “Introduction to Chemical Principles.” Lonergan sits is his Klamath Hall office as instruments hum in his adjoining lab, a sophisticated looking microphone on his desk—the SLP bought it to boost the sound quality of the videos he’s preparing for students to watch as homework assignments. “The SLP program invites us to think about how to engage students; at the same time, no one wants to sacrifice content,” he says—the videos are his solution.

The video series (including “Introduction to Chemical Equations,” which features Lonergan’s voice affably explaining his calculations, animated drawings and computer-generated models) will free Fridays, the third weekly class meeting, for participatory activities, especially peer teaching in small groups and drawing exercises, rather than straight presentation. But the videos aren’t a snap to make.

Lonergan estimates that the first took about 40 hours as he mastered the screencasting application and discovered that it’s hard to focus on drawing, writing neatly and talking at the same time. He’s attempting to complete eight or nine before Fall, “if I have the stamina,” he jokes.

“These videos make me think much more about what I’m going to say, what’s important, how to be concise, and how to use visuals well.” Indeed, the visuals run the gamut from accessible hand-drawn cartoons to computer-generated moving images like a wonderful, rose-colored streaming cloud of electrons: “this is what it would look like if you were standing on a nucleus,” Lonergan explains.

“I wish my teaching could be like a NOVA special—multisensory, telling a fascinating story,” says Lonergan, referring to the acclaimed PBS science program. “And the exciting part of a NOVA special—the fascination—is in the science itself, not how, say, learning this will just help you get a job,” he says. “It’s inspires viewers to understand the world around them.”

Lonergan says he’s interested in the intellectual challenge of large-class teaching and enjoys thinking about how to communicate the material clearly and well. He values the SLP for its “open, broad view” of science education—“it empowers faculty to do what they think is important, and opens up a faculty exploration and dialogue around best teaching practice.”

‘We’re digging in’

One lesson that undergraduate SLP Scholar Dylan Cottrell says is key—and surprising to many students—is “not to take everything at face value. Science teaching shouldn’t be just ‘this is a fact—The Way It Is—and this, this, this, and this, too. Now go memorize,’” he says. “The things people ‘know’ today can be disproved tomorrow.” Instead of focusing on facts alone, Cottrell says, his course teaches critical questioning and seeing the applicability of scientific concepts in a wider world, and it develops students’ abilities to contribute to public debate about issues grounded in science.

Rempel describes a classroom moment that seems to illustrate Cottrell’s point: the class was graphing a report on the fossil fuel reserves of different countries. First, they calculated how many years of coal each country has left at current consumption rates. For all of North America, the answer was 112 years. The room was silent. Later in the term, they looked at recent large oil discoveries. “We must have it wrong—we’re getting .05 years of world supply for the big new Brazilian field,” the students said, mistrusting their calculations. As they realized the implications of their answers, what had “seemed like a far away problem” came home for many of them, Rempel says.

“Our non-major students have strong verbal skills; they’re good with words and ideas, and have strong reasoning skills; that said, we discovered they often resisted the idea of forming an opinion about science because they ‘didn’t know everything.’ We challenged them on that. We want them to have courage in the face of conflicting information, and we want them to be willing to offer criticism—to say, ‘this tool or idea is less good than another because…’”

Energized by the term, Rempel says, “Our students are a good investment of our time. We’re not going to dismiss them or let them give up—we’re digging in.”

This is the second in a series of articles spotlighting excellent general education teaching at UO. The first piece featured UO’s Freshman Interest Group Program.

Related links:

Daily Emerald video report on the SLP
Professor Lonergan’s “Introduction to Chemical Equations” screencast
“People, Rocks, and Fire” Course Web site





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