Transforming STEM education

At the University of Pennsylvania, an innovative approach to teaching STEM could help attract more future graduates and help more students succeed.

Image credit: Getty
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Imagine an introductory college physics class where instead of sitting in a lecture hall, students work in small teams to predict the height from which an object must slide or roll downhill to successfully complete a loop-the-loop without leaving the track. They then do the experiment and analyze how accurate their predictions were.

Or imagine a math classroom where students use hands-on observation to explore the real-world application of mathematical concepts. One team, for example, measures how the intensity of light varies as it shines through more or fewer layers of gray film, while another measures how the temperature of a heated object cools back to room temperature. Yet another team considers epidemiological data for the spread of a disease. When the students come together to report back to the class, they can see how the same mathematical idea – the ubiquitous and important exponential function – can be applied to a variety of disparate phenomena.

“The goal in these classes is to get students involved in doing science and mathematics actively, rather than watching someone else do it or listening to them talk about it.”
At the University of Pennsylvania, this kind of classroom experience is called Structured Active In-class Learning, or SAIL. And at a growing number of colleges and universities across the country – classroom experiences like these could increasingly be the norm in teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Penn is one of more than 30 colleges and universities convened by the Association of American Universities (AAU), with the support of the Helmsley Foundation, to discuss how to transform STEM teaching, especially at the introductory college level. The objective is to make these classes more engaging, to enhance students’ learning, and to increase the success rate for students from groups under-represented in technical fields – such as minorities and women.

In particular, these efforts seek to address the need for greater numbers of more diverse and better-educated college graduates in STEM fields, as well as the need to increase technical and technological sophistication even among workers in fields that are not directly STEM-related.

“Students are learning to deal constructively and creatively with open-ended problems.”
At Penn, for example, the faculty learned that Penn students from groups under-represented in STEM were getting lower grades in introductory courses compared to majority students who, on paper at least, had similar preparation for the courses. In some cases, these students went to the same high schools and had equivalent standardized test scores. Seeing these data about their own students motivated a group of faculty members to begin meeting regularly with Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning to devise approaches to close this achievement gap.

The result of these efforts is SAIL, which is changing the very nature of introductory courses in STEM subjects.

Rather than standing in the front of a large auditorium and lecturing, professors facilitate their students working in small teams on theoretical or practical problems that develop, test, demonstrate and extend their understanding of basic scientific concepts and their applicability.

Instead of centering their class activity around note-taking, students are making and testing predictions, applying concepts and figuring out ways to solve problems. Similar active learning is taking place in chemistry, bioengineering, and earth and environmental science courses at Penn.

The goal in these classes is to get students involved in doing science and mathematics actively, rather than watching someone else do it or listening to them talk about it.

Physics 151 SAIL class taught by Masao Sako (at whiteboard). Image credit: John MacDermott, SAS Computing, University of Pennsylvania

Physics 151 SAIL class taught by Masao Sako (at whiteboard).
Image credit: John MacDermott, SAS Computing, University of Pennsylvania

This approach to teaching also requires changing what students do outside of class. Since class time is no longer devoted exclusively to lectures on new material, students may be taught to read a familiar source, the textbook, in new ways, and in many of these classes students are required to view on-line modules that contain short videos of lectures and demonstrations and to tackle a few practice problems. Some of these videos have been repurposed from Massively Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) produced at Penn for the Cousera platform, while others were produced specifically for these courses.

Today, more than 30 STEM faculty members are teaching SAIL courses at Penn, and faculty in social science departments such as economics and political science are transforming courses in those domains as well.

While it’s too soon to make definitive claims about persistence in STEM fields, or even about success in subsequent courses, the students in the SAIL courses are doing at least as well as the others on exams and other traditional assessments. In addition, the faculty say that students are learning to deal constructively and creatively with open-ended problems. Moreover, the constant and intense nature of faculty/student interaction helps instructors identify and ameliorate misunderstandings and gaps in students’ prerequisite knowledge before they develop into serious obstacles to learning.

“More than 30 STEM faculty members are teaching SAIL courses at Penn, and faculty in social science departments such as economics and political science are transforming courses in those domains as well.”
A widespread transition to the SAIL approach is not without its challenges, however. Some students, for example, say these classes feel “too much like high school.” And on a practical level, successful SAIL classes require classrooms that are furnished differently than traditional classrooms and lecture halls – they need small-group tables to facilitate teamwork, screens on multiple walls, sound systems that allow the instructors to be heard from any part of the room, and possibly the ability to supply power to computers or experimental equipment in multiple locations. On campuses such as Penn’s, where space is tight, it can be challenging to find appropriate space and controversial to repurpose existing space.

Despite the challenges, Penn has embraced the SAIL approach. “It is great to have such a high level of involvement from so many of our faculty already in this area and [we] envision that intensifying over the life of the project,” says Beth Winkelstein, Professor of Bioengineering and Associate Dean for undergraduate education in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science said. “That’s a really exciting part about this proposal; the faculty interest and dedication will undoubtedly benefit our students in their preparation to enter and succeed in STEM fields.”

Dennis DeTurck is the Stephen A. Levin Dean of the College and the Robert A. Fox Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. Bruce Lenthall is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania.

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