dB-SERC awards help transform science education

The need to bring different educational methods to different academic subjects has long been clear to Chandralekha Singh, a physics and astronomy professor at UPitt and director of dB-SERC — the Discipline-Based Science Education Research Center. She has been conducting research on discipline-based education for more than two decades. She continues to amass evidence that gearing educational methods to specific types of students in specific subjects can result in measurable gains in knowledge and in attitude, which can be just as important. On average, the GPAs of engineering majors in introduction physics courses, who are study subjects for Singh's students, did not change over four years

“I don’t believe it is the students’ fault,” she says, if they do not improve their GPAs across their college careers. “We as faculty in the University should think of it as our responsibility to help these students.” That’s the impetus behind dB-SERC and the motivation for its course transformation awards. Since db-SERC’s founding in 2013, it has funded as many as 10 awards annually — up to $10,000 — to natural sciences faculty members in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Two-time awardee Kyle Whittinghill, a lecturer in geology and environmental science, used a 2017 award to reshape her Introduction to Environmental Science lecture and recitations and is today preparing to employ her 2019 award to create a lab for her environmental geochemistry course. There, students learn about such environmental issues as atmospheric and water pollution and ocean acidification, plus the chemistry to understand and possibly mitigate these problems. Without the lab, she says, “we talk about chemistry techniques but there is no opportunity for students to practice those techniques.”

“There’s always been a dearth of people who research learning at the university level,” says Danny Doucette, a physics and astronomy graduate student and a teacher/scholar with dB-SERC. He believes physics has been leading the way in discipline-based educational research — probably because it is a complex field and has traditionally failed to attract a very diverse student population, he says. With discipline-based education research “you also need to bring in educational theory: How do you instruct well and how do you assess the success of what you are doing?”

The dB-SERC course transformation awardees meet weekly and present talks about their ideas and progress. “Participating in those, my first year at Pitt, I met a lot of the other science faculty,” Whittinghill recalls. “It helped me feel a part of a community at Pitt.” The weekly gatherings help faculty improve their approaches to course changes and conceive of new directions, based on others’ experience and thoughts, Singh says: “A lot of times when people are doing some innovative teaching and learning, things may not work as people expected. You may need to keep refining things to make them really adaptable to your students, to your own style.”

Written by Marty Levine

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