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Archive for the ‘Teaching Sciences’ Category

Rauner Special Collections Library holds many collections that lend themselves to the study of sustainability. The Papers of Donella Meadows and the polar research collections are complemented by smaller collections that can provide a deep historical context to today’s sustainability movement. College Archivist, Peter Carini, and Special Collections Librarian, Jay Satterfield, visited DCAL to lead a discussion of strategies for introducing these resources into the classroom.

Jay began by providing an overview of the strategies the Rauner employs for collecting. Specifically, he says, “In Rauner we aim for curricular support, we want to get our collection into the hands of undergraduates, while not ignoring other research purposes. We want to select materials as ‘teachable packages.’” In some areas, the collection is fairly deeps, such as for Robert Frost, Daniel Webster, and 19th century New Hampshire politics.

Satterfield continued with some show and tell from another deep collection, known as the White Mountain Collection. One table was full of samples from the collection, but Peter took some time to read from three guide books for the area from three moments in time: a guide book from 1851 that reflected a romantic view of nature; a 1912 guide that begins with a “road trip” view, alluding to the changing options for transportation; and a 1973 guide that warns of the threats of nature from overuse.

Peter Carini then took over to give an overview of the “college grants,” which were established at different times in the College’s past to provide a financial sustainability option for its ongoing needs. The first was supposed to setup a system for tenant farmers to bring income through agriculture, while the third was to provide income through logging leases to the timber industry. From records in the collection, we know when Dartmouth hired its first manager of the logging operations, who also became the first to head up the Outdoor Club.

Thirty-eight years later, in the late 1960s, we start to see documentation about conservation for recreational use in College Forester’s Records. Not long after, in 1970, Dartmouth established its Environmental Studies Program. Now, in 2012, we are seeing new plans for the College take shape in which “sustainability” will be part of the core that defines Dartmouth for the future.

The audience seemed quite interested to know how Rauner can play a larger role in helping faculty to visualize the collections for specific purposes. There were others, too, who wondered if an advisory board could be assembled to discuss how to further develop a “sustainability collection” at Dartmouth.

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This term’s TWIT (Teaching with Information Technology) session focused on ways in which teaching and learning is facilitated through technology, but the technology itself takes a background seat to the task at hand. Often, we appear to be showcasing the technology over the learning, when what we prefer is the usually the opposite.

Prof. Tom Jack, from the Biology department, and Christiane Donahue, from the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, kicked off the session with a dual-class collaborative wiki activity designed to increase Biology students’ ability to communicate science to a lay audience and increase non-scientists’ ability to interpret science.

Tom teaches BIOL99, a Senior Honors Thesis class, in which students work on preparing their senior thesis. In this particular assignment, the students are asked to write their scientific abstract, then an abstract for a lay audience and also to prepare a two-minute video describing the thesis for the lay audience.

Students in Christiane’s WRIT7, a first-year writing course, have been developing their ability to read and provide feedback to peers in a process designed to improve their own writing. For this assignment, they become the audience for the BIOL99 students. They read the abstracts, watch the videos and then, as someone almost certainly unfamiliar with the senior topics, provide insightful critiques and feedback on the materials.

The process is designed to strengthen the skills of everyone involved, and it is all mediated through the wiki tools available in Blackboard, the campus LMS. The videos that the BIOL99 student make are filmed in a studio space within the new Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center, against a green screen. The senior students then select a representative image of their work to insert via post-production.

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In the second presentation, Prof. D.G. Webster, from the Environmental Studies Program described the development of a webpage using text written by students and images they shot during a trip to the New England Aquarium in Boston. Students in D.G.’s ENVS17 Marine Policy class documented their visit to the aquarium with an eye toward sustainability and seafood. After writing up their reports and submitting their images, D.G. worked with the department administrator to add the pages to the department website using OmniUpdate. The work now stands as an effective advertisement for the course the next time it is offered.

Prof. Webster also presented the work of students in her ENVS16 Business and the Environment course. In the course, the students explore “green” businesses and D.G. provides a series of writing prompts for the students to use after selecting a business for research. The students respond to the prompt by writing blog postings to a private GoogleSites webspace. By the end of the term, the students have sufficient material to organize their blog postings into a more formal final report, which is also assembled using GoogleSites. Unfortunately, due to litigation risk, the students’ final projects are only made available to the instructor and to each other, although we were able to see a few during the presentation.

Look for the next TWIT session in April.

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Often times the largest barriers to learning are the preconceived ideas or mis-conceptions that we as learners bring into the classroom. While this is true for many subject areas, it seems most pervasive in learning science and mathematics. Given this knowledge, it is important to address these misconceptions and provide the students with the opportunity to unlearn and relearn these concepts.

During the February 9th Teaching Sciences Seminar in DCAL, Professor Chandrasekhar Ramanathan presented on the active learning teaching practices he was exposed to during the American Association of Physics Teachers workshop for new physics and astronomy faculty. In keeping true to the topic, those in attendance at this TSS were not passive recipients of the knowledge but active participants in the session.

After reviewing the philosophy behind Active Learning, Sekhar engaged the group in the practice of Peer Instruction. Made notable by Harvard Professor Eric Mazur, Peer Instruction involves students in their own learning during lecture by focusing their attention on underlying concepts.  In modeling Peer Instruction, Sekhar presented the group with a variety of common Physics questions and first asked the participants to answer as individuals. After answering individually, we broke off in groups of two to three to discuss the reasoning/thinking behind our answers. The group was then re-polled and the answer revealed with explanation/clarification as necessary. Not only was it fun to learn this way, but it allowed each individual to share their knowledge and become active participants in their learning. Find one of those who attended the session and ask them about the Car vs the Train.

Professor Ramanathan then discussed to the technique of Interactive Lecture Demonstration (ILD).  During ILD students first make predictions about the results of the demonstration. Once the demonstration is completed, the students discuss the results compared to their predictions. Reflection is key as it is through reflection that we can work through our misconceptions. Unfortunately, as noted by many in attendance, often times the traditional lab does not allow for reflection and that a standard “solution set” while often reproducible with that same set, does not afford students with the opportunity to reflect upon the process of solving the problem set and then applying the knowledge to other solution sets/situations.

The third active learning technique presented in the session was that of JITT or Just In Time Teaching. JITT engages students in learning activities before a class meeting. The type of activities can vary but may include video tutorials, simulations, and problem sets. The goal is to have students engage in the content and concepts outside of class and submit questions or reflections about the assignment to the instructor before class. This practice allows the instructor to focus on the knowledge gap and potential misconceptions the students bring to the content as he/she prepares for the next class meeting.

The session was fun, informative, and full of important takeaways. While incorporating Active Learning practices into the teaching and learning experience are extremely valuable; implementation is key.

  • Align Outcomes with Assessments, Assessments with Activities, and Activities with Outcomes.
  • Provide a supportive environment within the active learning classroom.
  • Explain to the students what you are doing and why.
  • Meet students where they are; don’t try to predict what they will have problems with.
  • Recognize that students may feel that their intelligence is being questioned when their understanding (misunderstanding) is challenged.
  • Provide opportunities for reflection for both the students and for yourself.
  • Consider how you will evaluate the success of the teaching techniques.

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The Teaching Sciences Seminar on October 13 was an informal discussion with Dean of the College, Charlotte Johnson, and Inge-Lise Ameer, Associate Dean of the College for Student Academic Support Services. The goals of this session were for Charlotte and Inge to meet the science faculty and for all in attendance to discuss the role student support services plays in promoting student success in the sciences at Dartmouth.

To facilitate this discussion, attendees were provided with the following readings, which focus on the latest research on first-generation college students, stereotype threat in education, and new research focusing on how to shrink the college minority gap.

  • Cushman, K. (2007). Facing the Culture Shock of College. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 44-47. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  • Ferenstein, G. (2011). How to Shrink the College Minority Gap. Fast Company. Retrieved October 17, 2011, from http://www.fastcompany.com/1741530/shrinking-the-minority-college-gap-for-free.
  • Steele, C. (2010). Conclusion: Identity as a Bridge Between Us. In Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us. (pp. 211 – 219). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Dean Johnson opened by outlining her vision of anchoring students in the intellectual life of campus and the importance of connecting what goes on outside of the classroom with what occurs in the lecture hall or lab. In particular, she noted the importance of building the faculty/student relationship outside of class and ensuring that the work of the Dean of the College feeds into and augments the Academic experience.

On the topic of student recruitment and retention in the sciences the message revolved around expectations and modeling. Students who have the opportunity to engage with and be mentored by diverse faculty and graduate student populations have a greater likelihood of success. Students are also more likely to thrive if they perceive that they are held to the same high expectations as others and that faculty are invested in their success. The key is to communicate this in a way that does not threaten a student’s identity.

When asked how a faculty member might address diversity issues in class without threatening student identity, both guests suggested faculty use silent signals such as

  • Letting the entire class know that you are aware of the variety of differences among the students experiences and preparation leading up to this class and that you are invested in each student’s success in the class.
  • Creating working groups, study groups and teams with a range of diversity in race, gender, experience, knowledge, etc.
  • Crafting critical feedback to include statements of encouragement and directing student to the support services available at Dartmouth.
  • Engaging the student in academic pursuits outside of class.
  • Communicating directly with Student Support Services at the first sign that a student may potentially need support.

Many faculty in attendance voiced a desire for improved communication and involvement between the Dean of the College and the faculty when it comes to student support and recruiting in the sciences. From the conversation that ensued around this topic it was clear that both Charlotte Johnson and Inge-Lise Ameer are committed to a developing a collaborative relationship with faculty in advocating for student success at Dartmouth.

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DCAL’s first Teaching Science Seminar of 2011 was a discussion of an outreach opportunity for faculty – Science Cafés.  Nancy Serrell, Director of Outreach, started the discussion with an overview of Science Cafés (we had also distributed the article A Scientist Walks into a Bar, by Amanda Thomas describing them).  Started in the UK, Science Cafés are informal conversations about science that have spread throughout the US, as can be seen from the “Find a Café” link on this website:  http://www.sciencecafes.org/ The basic idea is that a scientist  goes to a local venue with a casual environment to start a conversation about science with an audience that may include people who don’t usually talk about science.  Dartmouth graduate students and postdocs have already been involved in bringing junior Science Cafés to local middle schools, usually by talking about topics related to their research with middle school students over lunch or after school.  We now have NASA funding, through Bob Hawley’s grant, to expand the lunchtime Science Cafés in schools and to develop adult Cafés in local pubs or coffee shops.

Science faculty members were excited to learn about this opportunity and had lots of questions.  We brainstormed venues in the Upper Valley that may be good hosts and possible community partners.  Questions were asked about assessment and what makes a good Science Café.  Having a speaker that engages the audience and gets a conversation going is probably the most important element of a successful café.   The audience response will help determine success.  Were they engaged?  Did they talk about it afterward?  Do they return for another café?

Another aspect of the Science Café opportunity is that it’s aligned with professional development for faculty and future faculty.  Nancy mentioned that our graduate students who went to Washington DC for the inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival last October felt their preparation and experience interacting with the crowd was a bit like the “yes, and” of improv training and that might be a good way to prepare for science cafés.  Brian Pogue, Dean of Graduate Studies, mentioned that this kind of training for scientists was a hot topic at the Council of Graduate school’s annual meeting when Alan Alda talked about the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook.  We watched a video of the type of training Alan Alda offers and talked about next steps to make Science Cafés and the related improv training a reality here in the Upper Valley.

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As part of the ongoing training for Dartmouth’s GK-12 Fellows, participants in a session open to all grad students and postdocs gathered to discuss the questions we ask in class or during science outreach with public audiences.  We generated a list of questions, experienced either as teachers or students, that silenced the room rather than promoted discussion.  After reading “The Right Question at the Right Time,” by Joe Elstgeest (Chapter 3 in Primary Science: Taking the Plunge),  we explored why questions ranging from “why is methylmercury toxic?” to “are there any questions?” didn’t elicit the desired response and how we could revise them to better achieve the goal of the question in the first place.

Suggestions included breaking a big question down into smaller parts, revising the language to better match the knowledge level of our students, finding a related common experience, being more specific (or more general), creating a safe space, and recognizing when the question asked was not leading to the intended learning objective.  We talked about the importance of timing both in terms of allowing enough wait time to generate a response and how a question will be more productive when asked at an appropriate time.  Using the improv acting technique of “yes, and” to give a positive response to an answer that wasn’t expected and building from there was mentioned as another way to create an environment where people want to participate.

Nancy Serrell and Cindy Tobery, who were facilitating the workshop, concluded by using a summary of productive questioning strategies to focus on a specific example from our participants: how to engage the visitors to Dartmouth’s polar ice core exhibit during the upcoming USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington DC on Oct 24-25.

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On Thursday April 8, sixteen faculty members from departments across the sciences division, including math and engineering, joined with fourteen other campus leaders to listen to five students describe their experiences, good and bad, in science courses at Dartmouth. All five students belong to minorities underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) courses, not only at Dartmouth, but across all selective institutions of higher education. Most of them started in science because they wanted to be doctors. One of them may well pursue academic science instead. The rest remain on the MD path and regard most, but not all, science courses as a necessary evil on that path. It was very interesting to hear why that is.

Encouraged to be candid, most of these students reported being terribly discouraged in their first-year science courses by disappointing grades. Disappointing grades without much other feedback, and without much chance to offset them in the course of a short term, leads many students to a crisis of confidence, to resentment and an erosion of trust between them and their professors. When asked why students who get low grades are reluctant to visit professors in their office, one woman replied quite frankly, “because I feel already judged.” Learning theory tells us that people learn best when they can try something, fail, and receive useful feedback before trying again and being graded, but these students report that there are precious few chances for this in our science courses. One bad midterm grade can pretty much erode the trust and confidence required to learn from failure and proceed to success. In short, many of these students are not convinced that their instructors truly are invested in their success in science.

Most of them persist in science anyway, even if they describe themselves as “not a science person,” because they want to be doctors. So they develop work-arounds like taking organic chemistry as an intensive summer course at Harvard or putting off pre-med preparation to their post-baccalaureate years. None of the students who talked to us is planning on giving up.

Some of them paint a more encouraging picture of Dartmouth’s science courses. One sophomore woman got “hooked on science” by her organic chemistry course, partly because when she felt like giving up, her professor simply wouldn’t hear of it. A positive, confidence-building experience with a professor, or a health-care professional, seems to be the key to success for students who struggle with science. A senior neuro-science major loved Bio 11 and got lots of encouragement from the people at the DHMC lab where she worked part-time. Another chose anthropology for a major after encouraging consultations with faculty and now he has completed almost all his science requirements and will continue on the MD path.

When asked to make specific recommendations for science teachers, they all said instructors should concentrate on keeping students engaged in class. They suggested using clicker questions, even without the clickers, posing questions to individual students and then waiting, even “counting to five,” before moving on to another student. Nothing is more discouraging than being singled out as the one who doesn’t know the answer and then not having a chance to work through to the answer and recover confidence. Some of the faculty present also recommended things like testing students twice, once just for feedback, and then again for a grade. Others urged more frequent and more varied assessments targeted at a range of learning styles.

In everything they said, these students reminded me that we need to convince students, over and over again, that we believe in them and in their success. We need to demonstrate this to them in everything we do, especially when it’s time to help them past a disappointing test grade. Without a strong sense of trust, going both ways, students find learning much more difficult.

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