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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

TeachWeek 2017: Day 4

Olivia Wilkins

After some often events on day 1 and day 2 of TeachWeek, I decided to actually work on learning how to use CASA, a program released by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), to look at data from ALMA. (Radio astronomers who have used CASA, I feel for you.)

I checked back into TeachWeek on day 4 for a seminar co-hosted by the CTLO and CCE: "Questioning why and how we gather students together: Empowering changes in curricula and teaching" by Dr. John Pollard from the University of Arizona. Dr. Pollard is nationally recognized as a co-author of Chemical Thinking, an innovative curriculum that challenges the traditional, lecture-based general chemistry course style by implementing active learning and teaching concepts through critical thinking rather than the reverse.

Okay, this is a long one. I am just so excited about the ideas from this seminar that I couldn't stop writing.

Take your typical intro chemistry course, or any science course for that matter. Students are expected to buy a $200+ textbook (unless you go for a used option or look to the dark corners of eBay) which cannot possibly be covered completely (even in two semesters) that lay out topics—pillars of chemistry, if you will—that are not clearly connected but are somehow supposed to serve as the foundation of the rest of your chemistry career. (Yikes! And I love chemistry.) These topics typically start at the atomic level (like, what is an atom when you've only ever experienced life at the macro scale), forcing students to make the leap from the comfortable world where they live to a strange new one they have no idea how to conceptualize. It's no wonder students (at least at the University of Arizona, according to surveys administered by their chemistry department as reported by Dr. Pollard) express a drop in confidence after general chemistry courses; it's a lot to take in, especially when you don't understand how it is all connected and (try to) resort to memorization.

What we call learning is a process by which we transform the unknown into the known. In this process, there are four collections of knowledge, three of which were described by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Febrauary 2002:

...there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.

It is important to point out that there are unknown knowns as well; things we know but don't even realize we know, often the source of "Aha!" moments where everything clicks after making an observation that makes us want to kick ourselves.

Despite these different groups of knowledge in the process of learning, education often focuses on taking unknown unknowns and turning them into known knowns. This is alarming because, especially in science, known unknowns are just as important as known knowns according to Dr. Pollard. And I agree; known unknowns are essentially the foundations of research questions. Without these, we lose the motivation to push forward in our quest for discovery.

With this and the notion that "active learning" has a positive impact, Dr. Pollard's department made a bold move: rather than taking the same content in the chemistry curriculum and focusing on changing the teaching of that content, they opted to change the content first. A challenge of reconceptualization, the team aimed to shift the focus of their curriculum from topics, academia, and what students know to questions, context, and how students think. For instance, rather than follow the textbook and a checklist of topics expected of their curriculum by starting with explaining what atoms are, their curriculum focused on different types of matter at the macro level then explaining their structure through the particulate level, then subsequently the molecular down to atomic down to electronic level. After that, the curriculum moved in the reverse, giving a more complete view of matter. Additionally, some subfield-specific topics are removed completely, leaving room for more universal skills, like cost-benefit analysis and decision-making in the lab.

Another change was a focus on a learning cylce of exploration, concept development, and application. The University of Arizona chemistry department spent eight years to write an e[text]book based on this model, rather than one that focused on concepts separated into silos. The book includes concepts and assessments/practice problems, but the difference is that many of these things are interactive and allow students to explore applications beyond the typical topics lobbied for by textbook buyers (e.g. medical). Even better, nearly all of the $25/semester fee for the book goes not to a big publisher but back into the chemistry department which is then used for costs like equipment and grad student stipends.

The textbook isn't the only thing that has changed; so has the lab manual. Labs are carefully crafted such that they are project-based labs. These labs are more like research (which is what scientists do) rather than examinations (which is what students don't like to do). When I took general chemistry five-and-a-half (!?) years ago with Professor Amy Witter at Dickinson, the labs were chemical ecology project-based. One of the projects was to take a field trip to the college farm to collect cucumber beetles, expose them to pieces of cucumber plant to determine which plant components had cucurbitacins (a class of bitter chemicals that acts as a natural pesticide), and do extractions of the plants using something called thin-layer chromatography (TLC). In fact, I remember every lab I did in that class (which I cannot say for any of my other lab courses). That and how I still remember the term "cucurbitacin" all these years later is nothing short of remarkable and an example of how powerful project-based labs can be.

The last major key of the UofA overhaul is perhaps the most important element: the classroom setting. Stadium-style lecture halls were swapped for rooms full of tables with projectors around the edges. Whereas the former is not designed for engagement, the latter is, making it possible for general chemistry courses to be a blend of lecture and application where instructors can walk around the room and interact with students, helping them with parts of the course on which they specifically need help. Similarly, it allows for immediate feedback; instructors can gauge with what students are struggling more easily in class rather than find out when the whole class bombs a question on an exam. And speaking of exams, they're different too. Now, the department is trying 80/20 group testing: 80% of the exam is by the individual, 20% is by a group cluster (with the caveat that the group portion cannot hurt your grade). This helps to foster collaboration efforts started in "lecture" where students work individually and together on problems using white boards. (You want to engage students? What student doesn't love white boards? Not just for third graders, folks.)

Okay, okay... chemistry at the University of Arizona went under a lot of changes, but did they make an impact? According to Dr. Pollard, yes! First, the changes in curriculum didn't hurt students on a standardized test from the American Chemical Society (ACS) to assess whether students learned what they were expected to under an ACS-certified curriculum. Students did about the same overall. Okay, so they didn't learn all of the concepts, but they greatly improved their conceptual thinking. Moreover, analyzing the test results showed that students were able to use reasoning skills to answer questions correctly about topics they had never seen before. On average, everyone improved, from A and B students to C and D students. Not only did reasoning improve for the students in these classes, but their attitudes improved, toward chemistry, research, their education. And students did better in subsequent courses (like organic chemistry). I'm not sure whether it encouraged students to stick with chemistry or STEM generally, but I imagine it has the potential to given that students felt better coming out of the re-vamped chemistry course whereas before, they came out feeling worse.

But isn't this a lot of work? How do I [justify] completely overhaul[ing] my teaching? The University of Arizona did this with general chemistry courses that had enrollment of up to 300 students. If they can do it, anyone can. It looks like a lot of work, but the best way to approach this is by taking small steps to change your teaching. This is a process that took nearly a decade of dedication and grumbling, but it made general chemistry something more accessible to students. If you go one step at a time, perhaps by first introducing white boards or by recording lectures and assigning them for homework and doing some of the problem sets in class instead, you could already make a huge difference. Perhaps more work up front, but it will be a better experience for students (unless they are convinced that being talked at rather than engaged in their learning is the best way to learn, but you won't make them happy anyway) and for you (no more shocking insights while grading: "I was sure that they knew this!"). If you want students to learn, and learn effectively, you don't need to justify this to yourself (and hopefully not to your institution, buy hey, bureaucracy stinks).

There are numerous ways to change teaching so that it is more effective, but ultimately, it has to be student-centered. Dr. Pollard recommended some books to help with this that I'd like to check out: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

While it will be a difficult journey, made even moreso by arguments of budget and fear of changing the current systems in place, I think that "active learning" like that described by Dr. Pollard can be and will be the future of effective teaching.

Any ideas or concerns about how this type of learning could be implemented into college curricula, either in your field or generally? Please share in the comments to contribute to an important discussion in higher ed!

The comments on this post are not endorsed by Caltech or by the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach. I have stayed true to the message of the speaker in the described lecture to the best of my knowledge, but I acknowledge that I have also incorporated my own opinions and ideas.