Winds of Classroom Change

When Prof. Roland Stull designed his first-year course in Earth and Ocean Sciences, The Catastrophic Earth: Natural Disasters, he assembled a team of experts so that students could learn the science behind storms, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunami and landslides -- and their social ramifications -- from top researchers at UBC.

For more than half a decade, the popular course has received rave reviews from students, so much so that two-thirds of its enrolment -- averaging 500 per term -- come from outside the Faculty of Science.

So why have Stull, a world-renowned meteorologist, and his co-instructors been revamping the course since the summer?
“We saw an opportunity to make the course more effective,” says Stull, referring to new resources available through UBC’s Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI).

Led by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, who joined UBC to launch the $12 million initiative last January, the CWSEI is working with eight science departments to scientifically measure and systematically improve undergraduate education.

Based on each department’s proposal, the CWSEI funds full-time Science Teaching and Learning Fellows (STLFs) -- young scholars knowledgeable about research on learning and with expertise in both educational methodology and their respective disciplines. Often experienced teachers themselves, the STLFs assist faculty members to adopt proven best practices in teaching and assessment so students can better achieve carefully designed learning goals.

Stull’s Natural Disasters is one of three courses targeted for improvement by the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences this term. Many more courses will be addressed over the next four years.

A growing body of research shows that conventional, lecture-centred science courses often leave students less interested in science than when they started. Exercises that guide students to think through a problem “like a scientist,” on the other hand, significantly increases student engagement and are proven to double their grasp of new concepts, says Wieman.

With the help of the department’s STLFs Francis Jones and Brett Gilley, Stull scaled down the amount of content delivered in the classroom to make room for more small-group discussions and debates designed to challenge students’ assumptions and develop their reasoning and creative thinking skills.

“I’m guiding them to experience first-hand how scientists brainstorm and work through a problem, and how they incorporate knowledge and apply it,” says Stull, who notes that students are now asked to learn some content on their own but expected to use it actively in class activities.

Stull says he enjoys immensely his new role as a thought provoker rather than simply someone who delivers content. “Our students are sophisticated, bright and caring,” says Stull. “It’s incredible to see a 250-student lecture hall filled with excitement about what I’m teaching.

“The traditional lecturing method is efficient for covering a large amount of course material, if little else. Now I’m teaching efficiently and effectively,” says Stull.

“By working with professors to optimize their courses, we change the dynamics of a classroom from a ‘hand-out’ of knowledge to intelligent, thoughtful discourse,” Jones says. “In other words, instead of passively hearing about science, they are doing science.

“In Roland’s case, he put himself out on a limb, took the risk and is now very excited about the results,” says Jones. “When the transformation is so visible and palpable in the classroom, learning becomes exciting for students, fun for the teachers, and more effective.”

Jones and Gilley are now helping Stull design assessment questions that require students to evaluate scientific information, reason and arrive at logical conclusions. “This makes assessment an extension of the active learning process,” says Gilley, “and enables student evaluation to more accurately reflect the types of learning they have done during the term.”

Stull, Jones and Gilley are also evaluating their own efforts by devising ways to measure how students respond to different teaching and learning methods -- and adjusting their strategy accordingly as the semester goes on.

The “evidence-based” approach is appealing to them as scientists.

“We’re tackling teaching as a science,” says Jones. “And that means seeing and recognizing the challenges, looking for precedents and potential solutions, then measuring and assessing how useful the solutions are.

“This involves pushing the pedagogic envelope, and such innovation is exciting and rewarding.”

It would take nothing less than science itself to convince scientists to change the way they teach science, according to Carl Wieman. To that end, he is applying his Nobel Prize-winning research rigour to show them the data.

This fall, UBC science departments and the CWSEI are asking more than 3,000 students in 18 courses how they feel about science before and after a course, and comparing how different teaching methods affect their understanding -- and interest. The collaboration with the University of Colorado marks the first time a survey of this scale has been conducted on university students’ attitudes toward learning science.

“As with any scientific research, we have to establish a baseline in order to observe change,” says Wieman. The quantitative data being collected this fall, coupled with focus groups carried out last spring with first- and fourth-year science students, will paint a holistic picture of what is important to students.

A key factor identified by the focus groups is the instructor’s attitude towards student learning. “Namely, students value teachers who show an active interest in their learning and who make the connection between what’s being taught to its real-world applications,” says Wieman. “This leads to better engagement and in turn leads to better learning outcomes.”

Brendon Goodmurphy, Vice-President of Academic and University Affairs at the Alma Mater Society, echoes the finding. “What it comes down to is the instructor’s dedication to a student’s academic experience,” he says. “We want them to clearly communicate the goals of the course, what material we must learn, and that they are willing to do whatever it takes to support us.

“I think a lot of profs worry that students are looking for someone funny who delivers amazing speeches, but it’s not about that,” says Goodmurphy.

The Science Centre for Learning and Teaching (Skylight), established by the Dean Office seven years ago to provide teaching resources and support, takes a similar approach to the CWSEI, but focuses on one course at a time, usually in the form of pedagogical research projects. Leah Macfadyen, a research associate with Skylight and a member of the CWSEI Working Group, says CWSEI’s scale and infusion of funding is what’s needed to take these improvements to the next level.

“Simply by its presence, the CWSEI has brought the notion of teaching science as a form of science to the fore,” says Macfadyen. “And it appeals to the scientists’ instincts.”

There has been a lot of “buzz” among students surrounding CWSEI, according to Goodmurphy. While students are eager to see “tangible results,” he says they understand that change needs time.

“The most definite impact is the commitment to teaching and learning that CWSEI makes to UBC and the greater community,” he says. “There will be growing pains but it’s bold and brave and it’s worthy trying, especially for a leading-edge institute like UBC.

“This is what we need to be doing to be a leader in education.”

Simply by its presence, the CWSEI has brought the notion of teaching science as a form of science to the fore. And it appeals to the scientists’ instincts.

Alex Walls
Media Relations Specialist, UBC Media Relations