Summer Institute Focuses on Undergraduate STEM Education

UC Riverside hosts the National Academies West Coast Scientific Teaching Summer Institute; participants learn to “flip the classroom” and engage students in active learning

Photo shows people in a workshop.

The West Coast Scientific Teaching Summer Institute took place at UC Riverside June 23-27, 2014. Photo credit: Bradley Hyman, UC Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Thirty-three instructors from various universities on the West Coast spent all of last week at the University of California, Riverside to improve undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) teaching and student learning.

The instructors participated in the “West Coast Scientific Teaching Summer Institute,” a five-day workshop (June 23-27) sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in collaboration with the National Academies. Specifically, they learned how to “flip the classroom” or incorporate active learning tools into otherwise didactic lectures.

“We believe we have 33 converts that will return to their home institutions excited about transforming their courses from passive to student-centered active learning environments—where students help create their own knowledge from a hands-on, inquiry-based perspective,” said Bradley Hyman, a professor of biology at UC Riverside, who co-led the institute along with Clarissa Dirks, an associate professor of biology at Evergreen State University, Washington. “Importantly, a significant number of participants were postdoctoral fellows just beginning their teaching careers, and such early adopters of Scientific Teaching will have the advantage of establishing their own courses from this new perspective from the beginning.”

The five-day workshop took place in the Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory. Participants:

  • learned effective active learning techniques to employ in the STEM classroom
  • created an active learning lesson to use in their own classrooms
  • reviewed student-centered exercises developed by other faculty
  • developed assessment tools to measure student understanding.
Photo shows Erin Rankin.

Erin Rankin is an assistant professor of entomology at UC Riverside.Photo credit: I. Pittalwala, UC Riverside.

Participating instructors were taught to craft lectures through a “backwards” design process whereby learning outcomes — active expectations of the students — were first established. Assessments were then crafted that aligned specifically with learning outcomes.  Then, lectures incorporating multiple active learning devices were constructed that carefully aligned with assessments and outcomes.  To ensure inclusivity, the diversity of student backgrounds — academic, socioeconomic, and ethnic — were incorporated into lectures.

Erin Rankin, an assistant professor of entomology at UCR, has been teaching classes of more than 300 students since April 2013. “What I learned at this institute is that information needs to be made accessible to all students, regardless of their preparation or background,” she said.  “I learned, too, that I can use activities such as paired-shares in large stadium-type classrooms so that students engage in peer-to-peer interactions.  Participating in the five-day workshop has made me think critically about what my students are getting out of my courses—not just content, but also how are they learning, how are they assessing what they know and what they don’t.”

Photo shows Blaire van Valkenburgh.

Blaire van Valkenburgh is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the associate dean for academic programs in the life sciences at UCLA. Photo credit: I. Pittalwala, UC Riverside.

For Blaire van Valkenburgh, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the associate dean for academic programs in the life sciences at UCLA, participating in the institute helped her think about the diversity in her classrooms in new ways.  “It’s not just gender and ethnicity, but also people with different learning styles and personalities,” she said.  “For example, traditionally I would ask a question in class and the ‘fan club’ in the front rows would answer.  I didn’t think much about how disengaged the rest of the class was.  New techniques we learned in the institute have shown us how to get the whole class involved, how to get students to share with each other and participate.”

Kelsey Gano, a graduate student in microbiology, is a teaching assistant at UC Riverside with a strong interest in improving her teaching as part of her professional development.  “I have learned in this workshop how to be more approachable to my students and deliver information to them that is easier for them to understand,” she said.  “I plan to share what I have learned at the institute with my peers, some of whom, I know, are struggling at being more effective teaching assistants.  I made many new connections at the institute with instructors from other universities.  I expect we will be in contact for many years.”

Photo shows Kelsey Gano.

Kelsey Gano is a graduate student in microbiology and a teaching assistant at UC Riverside,Photo credit: I. Pittalwala, UC Riverside.

The workshop placed considerable focus on institutional transformation—that is, propagating what was learned in the summer institute throughout the home institution of the participants. Methods as to how to “teach” other instructors about scientific teaching and engage administrators in the importance of supporting active learning efforts engaged by their faculties were included in the institute.

The quality and effectiveness of undergraduate STEM education has received much attention. The National Research Council’s BIO 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists reported that introductory science courses often supply little knowledge of contemporary science, and can actually discourage students from further science study. It is recommended in this report and others that university faculty explore new ways to teach. It also proposed that a summer institute on teaching be developed for faculty.

For the past 10 summers, HHMI and the National Academies have partnered to conduct summer institutes on undergraduate science education. Besides improving classroom teaching in the sciences by training instructors to develop and implement effective teaching methods, the summer institutes aim to attract more students to the sciences by training faculty and future faculty (graduate students and postdocs) to provide an outstanding undergraduate classroom and research laboratory experience.

Besides the West Coast, the following regions have summer institutes: the Gulf Coast, Midwest, Mountain West, Northeast and Southeast.

All the institutes bring together teams of science educators, with each participant helping develop instructional materials designed to teach scientific thinking and concepts at the introductory level. In the academic year following the institutes, participants test the materials in their own introductory courses. A nationwide experiment assesses the impact on faculty teaching and student learning.

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-6050
Twitter: UCR_Sciencenews

Additional Contacts

Bradley Hyman
Tel: (951) 827-5911

James Burnette III, Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Lab.
Tel: 951) 827-5157

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