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UO’s science literacy program cultivates scientific curiosity

It was time to sign up for next term’s classes again, and University of Oregon junior Julia Trujillo knew she needed to fulfill general education science requirements for her bachelor of science degree. Trujillo, a pre-journalism major, was dreading this, having felt disconnected from topics taught in her science classes.

“I only had two science classes and they were both mandatory,” Trujillo said. “There was a biology (class) where the professor was very much into science and just adored all things about it but was bad at teaching it. And chemistry was the same thing. It started feeling like a math class instead of a science class, so I wasn’t really curious about what we were learning about, but rather just getting information for the test.”

Like Trujillo, many U.S. citizens feel intimidated by science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics, with Pew Research Center finding that 52 percent consider math and science “too hard.” The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked the U.S. 24th out of 71 countries for science skill level of 15-year-olds.

Students who continue their education at a university usually cannot escape science and math GE requirements, so many take an introductory class to fulfill the requirements. Yet science and math are included in the university general education requirements for a good reason. According to a peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Translational Medicine by Elizabeth Marincola, learning science helps develop disciplined thinking, which can help in other parts of people’s lives. The paper also concluded that many societal issues revolve around scientific topics, such as health care, technologic development and food choices.

But for students, these science and math requirements can feel like a burden. Like many undergraduates in a similar position, Trujillo looked for a class that sounded intriguing and easy. She had always found astronomy interesting, so she decided to get her science requirements via astronomy courses. The first class she took was lecture-based and “kind of boring.” The next term, she took astronomy lecturer Scott Fisher’s “The Birth and Death of Stars.”

“I was expecting it to be still interesting and engaging … but basically a lecture,” Trujillo said. “But instead I found the best class I have ever taken on campus.”

Trujillo said Fisher made the large lecture class feel active and exciting. Instead of trying to teach meticulous details, he focused on increasing student interest in the topic. She said that on the first day of class he said, “I am going to teach you the things you are going to remember, you are going to love and that you are going to talk about whenever you have an opportunity.”

Dr. Scott Fisher, astronomy instructor at the University of Oregon. Photo credit: Cole Elsasser

Fisher is one of the growing number of UO STEM instructors engaging with the UO Science Literacy Program (SLP), which was founded in 2010 and funded through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) with “significant internal support” from UO – according to the SLP website. The program strives to improve science literacy by providing instructors and graduate students with effective teaching methods. Rather than lecturing, SLP instructors are encouraged to build an inquiry-based teaching style to promote student curiosity and engagement.

“The biggest things are about trying to shift the mindset from it being the instructor delivering information to the students working through the information themselves,” graduate education mentor Austin Hocker said.

The science literacy program currently works with the biology, physics, earth sciences, chemistry and human physiology departments. Instructors, graduate students and undergraduates join the program on their own accord, and take out of the program what they put into it. The SLP website reports that 155 SLP courses have been taught by the 45 faculty members, 91 graduate fellows and 103 undergraduate scholars participating.

The main aspect of the program is the journal club, where approximately 20 to 30 SLP members meet weekly for one hour to discuss papers about successful teaching methods. This is how Hocker got involved.

“It is really awesome to have a community of people to talk to about teaching and talking about different strategies to make students more successful and learn more,” Hocker said.

After attending the club for several years with a peer who was a SLP graduate student, Hocker slowly started attending SLP events himself and using their educational methods to teach core human physiology courses. One of the unique aspects of the science literacy program is that it requires undergraduates and graduates in the program to teach a class by the end of the quarter.

Now, instead of teaching science courses, he helps other graduate students learn how to teach and helps organize the journal club. If the instructors and graduate students want to gain even more experience and knowledge, they can attend the regional, weeklong Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching led by Vandegrift. According to university communications, 55 faculty and postdoctoral researchers attended last year.

Using the tools

Hocker said that most members hear about it from instructors or peers like he did, and many are drawn to the program through their interest in teaching. From there, the community aspect helps hold members accountable. Fisher finds the relatively unformatted nature of it beneficial to the program because it allows individuals to use approaches that work best for them. For example, while some teachers like to use electronic survey method, like iClickers, he is worried that this method ruins the class flow. He would rather use what he calls “chest voting” where students vote on answers using their fingers.

“To me, the iClickers – it just always felt like we broke the magic in some sense,” Fisher said.

The nonprescriptive nature also encourages more faculty to join the program because they don’t have to worry about too much of a time commitment. There is a concern that arises with the program being less structured, though. Outspoken physics professor Greg Bothun, who has taught SLP courses in the past, said he believes that more organization could lead to the program to becoming more formal. He would even like to see it become a department of its own with science communication professionals guiding it.

“We’re all amateur at this, and that is okay at some level. But on another level, an amateur needs to be guided by a professional to become better,” Bothun said.

Bothun said he’d like to see science literacy experts leading the program. As of now, SLP members, such as SLP Associate Director Elly Vandegrift, monitor course progress by sitting in on classes to see instructors and graduate students use the new teaching methods. Then they provide feedback.

“If you are in a class and you are being put in small groups or you are talking with each other and you are answering clicker questions, for example, there’s a lot of evidence that by doing those types of practices, it is much better for student learning,” Vandegrift said.

The program started with lower-division courses, but instructors are encouraged to apply the teaching methods to upper-division courses too. Fisher said he believes that some of the methods work best in a smaller teaching environment and that is where the program can really excel.

“With 30 or 40 students, you can do whatever you want,” Fisher said. “All the doors are open for active learning.”

Bothun agrees that many of the techniques explored in the program are easier to implement in a smaller class, yet he emphasizes the importance of keeping the program’s focus towards non-science majors.

“This should be employed in Physics 101 where there are 200 students because that’s where the impact is,” Bothun said.

He said that ideally, non-science majors would be required to take a science class that’s a smaller class size with lots of hands-on learning, kind of like the way writing classes are formatted.

While there might be some disagreement on which direction the SLP should go, both Bothun and Fisher agree though that the program is a step in the right direction in tackling the larger societal issue.

“We want the next person you send to Congress to be scientifically literate,” Bothun said.

Illustration by Erica Pahua

Getting the word out

Because the SLP is mainly advertised through word-of-mouth, it isn’t very well-known to non-science undergraduates. Trujillo, who hadn’t heard of the SLP program before, got lucky with her class choice. She said it would be beneficial for both the students and the program if students knew about it.

“All the time you get professors that are like, ‘Here’s the information. Take it.’ And that can be good for a class, but if you have a Gen Ed where people aren’t engaged in the first place because they’re just like ‘I just have to take this’ then you might as well make it interesting,” Trujillo said.

The program was recently added to searchable course options on the school’s class information system DuckWeb under the acronym SLP, but because many students don’t know about the program, the feature is less likely to be used.

Vandegrift recognizes that program’s advertising is an issue, saying that they have tried methods such as  flyers and newsletters, but the information still hasn’t trickled down to students. The SLP is in communication with the journalism school’s new Media Center for Science and Technology (MCST) in hopes that the multidisciplinary relationship will benefit both parties.

Vandegrift remains pleased with how far the program has come and points to the awards she and her SLP colleagues have received. Vandegrift and SLP co-director Judith Eisen received the Thomas F. Herman Award for Special Pedagogy. Vandegrift was also recognized as a Williams Fellow for her dedication to improving science education. Fisher and chemistry professor Mark Lonergan both received the Tykeson Teaching Award by using skills taught through the program.

Research on teaching supports the methods SLP instructors use. One peer-reviewed paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that there is a 55 percent increased chance that a student will fail a lecture-based class, compared to an active-learning one. The study also found that students scored a half grade higher in active-learning classes than those in lectures.

“Their statement is so strong that if this was a medical drug trial, it would have been stopped because the active-learning has such a positive impact on students that we would say we could no longer lecture,” Vandegrift said.

Though the SLP program itself is still relatively new to have much data on it, many published sources support the program’s direction. Trujillo is proof that active-learning can have a big effect on students. After taking Fisher’s course, she decided to take another astronomy class the next quarter, just for fun.

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Becky Hoag

Becky Hoag