Teaching Science and Engineering Courses

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By Shola Adenekan

For most of her secondary school years, Ruth Bedder was a straight humanities student. Then she decided to study Geology as one of her A' Level subjects and discovered that the sciences can be interesting and a little bit different.

"I love being able to learn how things work, and applying that to the whole planet was really fascinating for me," she says. "So I changed my A Level courses and took sciences instead! I like the fact that as a scientist I'm actively encouraged to ask ‘why things happen the way they do,' and that I can take academic and key skills from my course, and apply them to really diverse parts of my life."

Helen Simpson, a 20-year-old microbiology student at Reading University plans to work in research or in a microbiology laboratory after graduation. Like Ms Bedder, she fell in love with science at school and thought it would be a good idea to carry on with what she was good at.

"I think that good teachers that are enthusiastic about sciences are the most important thing that a school can do," she says. "If your teachers are excited about sciences and actually know what they are talking about then the students will be keen about it."

Both Ms Bedder and Ms Simpson echo the route many young people are taking into science and engineering courses. Recent studies in America and Britain suggest these courses are making a strong comeback, with double-figure percentage rises for physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering and technology.

While many admission officers say they are baffled by this sudden and unexpected surge in uptake, education experts believe that interest in some science and engineering courses are being stimulated by secondary school teachers, while introductory classes at university level are flagging.

Moreover, in the education route from primary school to postgraduate study in the sciences and engineering, recent studies have identified introductory courses as a stubborn obstruction, and many academics are experts say that if we want to increase the number of students taking up these courses up to PhD level, academics need to introduce new innovations into the teaching of these subjects.

Prof Robert J. Beichner, an eminent American physicist and director of a new innovative approach to teaching science and engineering courses at North Carolina State University, believes most introductory courses being taught at universities do very little to popularise science and engineering. He points out that courses are often taught in large, impersonal lecture settings.

"In physics, at least, the content is typically no newer than the year 1900," he says.  "Quantum mechanics and relativity are rarely taught in introductory courses. In short, the exciting things that probably first got the students interested in science, are missing."

It is a view shared by Colin MacPherson, a senior lecturer in Earth Sciences at Durham University. Dr MacPherson points out that outside of physics, mathematics, Chemistry and Biology, there are few schools that teach Earth Sciences as a stand alone subject. Furthermore, the subject is not taught as an explicit scientific discipline from the earliest stages of a pupil's scientific education but as a "specialist" module in the GSCE A-Level curriculum.

"Aspects of the Earth crop up in Geography, Physics and chemistry, but mainly to illustrate general scientific principles, rather than demonstrating the importance and relevance of studying Earth process in themselves," he says. "As a result, some students arrive in our department knowing that they would just like to find out a bit more about the Earth and some never knew that it was possible to study Earth processes. Introductory courses allow us to cater for the divergence of prior experience in our intake."

Dr MacPherson believes introductory courses are particularly important for Natural Sciences candidates who are often seeking ways to focus their interest in a range of scientific disciplines.

Many of these courses have relied largely on lectures and tests that reward memorization of facts and formulas for many decades, an approach that has put off many talented students. Another problem which many science and engineering lecturers face is that of modularisation. They say that while it may make timetabling easier for whole institutes, it encourages students to compartmentalise their knowledge and thus inhibits a broad understanding across the curriculum.

Beside, many lecturers complain that class sizes are too big, and that it is increasingly difficult to provide students with the personalised feedback which they need to develop their learning at an appropriate pace.

"The recent government policy of increasing numbers in higher education has stretched resources such that staff-student ratios are, effectively decreasing," says Dr MacPherson. "Students who feel well informed about how and why their academic skills are progressing, through one-to-one discussion with staff, are more likely to engage with a subject at a higher (post-graduate) level, where they know they will be subject to such interrogation of their learning. It is no surprise then that 'Feedback and Assessment' is the aspect of the National Student Survey, and of many internal evaluations of student experience, where scores are low in every discipline."

Dr MacPherson says this is particularly detrimental at introductory level, at a time when universities have to try and convert the learning habits acquired during secondary education to those that will lead to success at tertiary level.

Do you want to know how to stimulate students' interests in lectures? Please come back and read Rethinking Science and Engineering Part II.  

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