The Gateway Science Initiative Symposium at Hopkins Homewood campus Friday (1/20/12) presented ideas large and small related to the re-invention of teaching in thesciences. The larger questions focused on a single issue: keeping the attrition rate of college students who want to study science and math from suffering a continuous fall. The STEM fields (science, technology , engineering and math) offer the highest growth rate for jobs, however there are  numerous academic pitfalls that pose a number of concerns.


Dr. Jo Handelsman (pictured above) , Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and Director of the Center for Scientific Teaching at Yale University, specifically addressed issues that lead to student regression and failure:

1)      STEM majors  are unable to engage in critical thinking (emphasis on facts, rather than inquiry)

2)      Poor retention of lecture content

3)      60% of students abandon STEM majors (“weed out” mentality that exists in most STEM departments)

4)      The greater loss (80%) of African American students

         Dr. Handelsman came armed with an assessment for the future. She suggested that scientific teaching should be evidenced-based learning that includes a toolbox of  “active learning” components (writing a paragraph in the middle of the lecture on what you’ve just heard) and she put forth a new synthesis that would improve undergraduate science teaching. Her focus was on a classroom experience that requires a) self -correction through feedback, c) peer-mentoring and c) classroom diversity. 

The big gun that was repeatedly fired throughout the symposium was that scientific teaching should entail not only the material itself, but also include how we engage students. Specifically, the “standard-lecture technique,” vs. “engaged learning”. In too many situations students plop down in class, and as the lecture unfolds they go into autopilot. The standard look from the Professor’s POV is a large classroom full of students with laptops raised who may be tuned into the lecture material----or----more concerned with the Facebook status of the cutie next to them. This may well be a general educational conundrum, but the numbers suggest it’s a crisis within STEM courses. Dr. Handelsman, as well as the break-out session I attended, raised the question of how to move science from “knowledge hoarding to knowledge sharing”. Can students and scientists achieve more through collaborative efforts? Indeed, they can----but then, on every level we all want to take credit, do we not? Don’t we love the idea of presenting the Nobel Prize Winner with a little WORSHIP (and glory!)----much more than we would giving praise to a prize-winning committee?



 Dr. David Botstein (above), Director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University fired a few more salvos at the traditional classroom experience. His Institute promotes the study of science that “perceives, measures and models the way things work in the real world”.  His motto is “we all teach together”. Dr. Botstein is an advocate for deleting the overloaded agenda of required courses, and for doing away with pre-med curriculum altogether. He believes the scholastic life of scientists or scholars shouldn’t have to start in their mid-30’s or early 40’s. Dr. Botstein presented his Institute as “promoting the entire integrative approach towards chemistry, math, science, genetics and physics”.  While he realizes it may be overwhelming to incorporate such a full spectrum, the true aim of the Institute is “to give students a SAMPLE of what’s available moving forward”.

Dr. Eric Mazur, Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University, believes in total information transfer.  He wants students to take more responsibility for their education and to this end stresses:

1)      A significant reliance on pre-class reading

2)      Depth – Not coverage

3)      Concept Tests

4)      Peer Instruction ("out of chaos comes a clarity of discussion")

Dr. Mazur utilizes class clickers as a resource tool, and supports any and all electronic gadgetry within the classroom. He asks questions, then has students use clickers to announce their answers----as the answer poll starts, the debate begins. He advocates re-making the atmosphere for academia, in essence, combining the traditional lecture approach,  bundled up with active engagement thus creating “a different architecture for learning”.  

You may have read the Interview I did with Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland Baltimore-County, and his address affirmed some of his major points in that interview. Dr. Hrabowski has taken very bold steps with his Meyerhoff Scholars program, steps taken with the intention of creating a classroom that’s tailored for redesigned learning. The statistics behind Dr. Hrabowski’s math and science program are eye-popping to be sure, especially for traditionally under-represented populations. However, behind the numbers is a clarion call for innovative classroom thinking. Taking Dr. Mazur’s concepts a step further, UMBC now has modified (starting on a small scale) the architecture in classrooms and turned them into learning modules. These feature a circular design of one unified desk, allowing for much more of interactive peer-to-peer learning. Dr. Hrabowski went on to say that "the library is the 20th Century, students want to have spaces where they can study, eat pizza, chat and network". (I know I've heard that someplace, but can't quite recall where...")

As the symposium concluded, I was struck by the idea that the day was spent seeking solutions that were all perhaps still "out there" in the great beyond of the future. As teaching evolves and methodology changes, looking forward will ultimately require a new set of eyes. It was a pleasure to be in such a marketplace of ideas.   


Alonzo LaMont




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