Top Tips for Promoting Active Learning on Science and Engineering Courses

     
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by Shola Adenekan

For students, humour and practical demonstrations in lectures are essential in stimulating interest.

"Humour is hard to incorporate into any kind of public speaking, so a lot of tutors leave it out altogether," observes Ms Bedder. "But it really helps to stick concepts in my mind. Practical demonstrations, especially those that use volunteers help a lot because I learn much better with kinaesthetic stimuli, and it breaks up the flow of the lesson, which makes it easier to maintain concentration."

Many of the new teaching models have shown success in engaging and retaining undergraduates. Tutors at North Carolina State University have developed an innovative approach called SCALE-UP (Student-Centred Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs). The aim of this project is to establish a highly collaborative, hands-on, computer-rich, interactive learning environment for large-enrolment courses. Prof Beichner says the study that he and his colleagues did prior to embarking on this project indicates that students should collaborate on interesting tasks and be deeply involved with the material they are studying.

"We promote active learning in a redesigned classroom of 100 students or more and of course, smaller classes can also benefit," he says. "We believe the SCALE-UP Project has the potential to radically change the way large classes are taught at colleges and universities. The social interactions between students and with their teachers appear to be the "active ingredient" that makes the approach work. As more and more instruction is handled virtually via technology, the relationship-building capability of brick and mortar institutions becomes even more important. The pedagogical methods and classroom management techniques we design and disseminate are general enough to be used in a wide variety of classes at many different types of colleges."

With the SCALE-UP model, lecture time is spent primarily on "tangibles" and "ponderables ". Essentially, these are hands-on activities, simulations, or interesting questions and problems. There are also some hypothesis-driven labs where students have to write detailed reports. Students sit in three groups of three students at 6 or 7 foot diameter round tables. Instructors circulate and work with teams and individuals, engaging them in Socratic-like dialogues. Each table has at least three networked laptops. The setting is very much like a banquet hall, with lively interactions nearly all the time. 

Materials developed for the course were incorporated into what became the leading introductory physics textbook, used by more than a third of all science, math, and engineering students in America today.

Prof Beichner points out that this approach is bearing fruit, with studies showing an improvement in students' ability to solve problems; an increase in conceptual understanding, improvement in attitude to learning, reduction in failure rates, especially for women and ethnic minorities and with "at risk" students doing better in later engineering statics classes.

In the UK, professional organisations such as Institution of Civil Engineers, Institute of Physics and the Institution of Chemical Engineers believes science and engineering programmes can benefit from collaborations between them and universities. 

Andrew Stanley is a senior manager for education and learning at Institution of Civil Engineers. He says his organisation wants to show that engineering is fun. 

"We have academics and practising civil engineers visiting universities and reviewing courses," he says. "This ensures that courses are current and up-to-date and deliver what is required for employers, and thereby to young people. Also, as part of this process, examples of good practice and innovative teaching are shared within the civil engineering community."

At Durham University, the Earth Sciences department is attempting to engage with schools through various outreach programmes. This involves third year undergraduates going on placement into local schools and teaching Key Stage 2-5 pupils.

This, Dr MacPherson says, has the benefits of providing teaching experience to students, whilst simultaneously giving school pupils a taste of what the Earth Sciences have to offer.

"The North-east has a high proportion of schools with low conversion of secondary to tertiary education. So the initiative also exposes local pupils to the opportunities and benefits associated with higher education. Since its inception the "Earth Sciences into ..."concept has been rolled-out into most subjects in Durham's Faculty of Sciences," he says.

Read more about Teaching Science & Engineering Courses

Useful links:

http://scaleup.ncsu.edu/

http://www.dur.ac.uk/earth.sciences/

www.ice.org.uk

http://www.eng.cam.ac.uk/news/index.shtml

http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~hemh/

Big Bang Science and Engineering Fair

Civil Engineering TV

Ambassadors Scheme 

Engineering Your Future Event

Stemnet

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