Western Partnering with WCC, SVC on $2 million NSF Grant to Examine New Approaches to Teaching Science, Math, and Engineering

by John Thompson
Monday, March 7, 2016 - 9:16am
Office of Communications and Marketing

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Western is partnering with Skagit Valley College and Whatcom Community College on a new $2 million NSF grant to examine new approaches to teaching science, math, and engineering.
Western is partnering with Skagit Valley College and Whatcom Community College on a new $2 million NSF grant to examine new approaches to teaching science, math, and engineering.

Sometimes, the old ways aren’t the best ways.

Ed Geary, director of Western Washington University’s Science, Math and Technology Education (SMATE) program, said that research continues to show that the old way of learning– teacher stands in front of students, delivers lecture, students memorize lecture to the best of their ability – is not conducive to the students actually learning and understanding science, math, or engineering as well as they could.

“What we know now is that almost immediately after the need to memorize this information is removed – such as a test – students in this learning model, at least in regards to the sciences, retain as little of 10 percent of that information down the road,” Geary said. “That’s not really learning, so we wanted to try something new that is based on 20 years of research about how people learn.”

Geary, with the help of a three-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, has enlisted about 35 faculty at Western, and groups of science and math faculty at Whatcom Community College and Skagit Valley College, to try and teach undergraduate science courses at their institutions in a much different way than they have in the past. Combined, the almost 60 faculty at the three institutions are working to transform how core classes in disciplines such as Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Environmental Science, Physics, Math, and Geology are taught.

The goal is a new kind of faculty-student engagement that puts the focus on group-based, student-centered learning where students are tasked with discovering the answers to problems or questions themselves, as opposed to being told how something works and being required to memorize that information.

“The role of the faculty member now shifts in this model to being more of a facilitator, not a lecturer. They pose these questions to the groups and then help the students navigate their way through the discovery process,” Geary said. “This new model means that we may cover fewer topics in the same time period, but that the students remember and understand far, far more of the core concepts than they did before.”

To learn the new model, faculty attend a summer institute at Western to get instruction from SMATE faculty on how best to use the new classroom techniques, and the early results of the training are very positive.

Brad Smith, Physical Sciences faculty member at Skagit Valley College, said that his Geology students are definitely more engaged and involved in their own learning using the new model.

“They can’t just coast through class any longer; they have to actively participate in order to learn,” he said. “When a student is working in a small group mastering new ideas, a sense of ‘we’re all learning this together’ empowers them to take more risks and challenges, rather than feeling like an outsider or interloper listening to a lecture on something they don’t think they will ever understand.”

And while it takes more preparation before class and analysis after class than the typical lecture model, Smith said thus far the gains in student learning and satisfaction justify the effort.

In the end, Geary said he thinks the new model will do more than improve how much students remember about their science courses – it will improve the number of students who end up pursuing majors and careers in the sciences.

“A broader, deeper understanding of the sciences forges new paths and interests that weren’t there before,” he said. “And in the end, that’s a huge, huge takeaway.”

For more information on the grant and collaboration between Western, WCC and SVC, contact Edward Geary at (360) 650-3637 or edward.geary@wwu.edu. 

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Western is partnering with Skagit Valley College and Whatcom Community College on a new $2 million NSF grant to examine new approaches to teaching science, math, and engineering.