STEM Series: Improving STEM Education in College | Connecticut Public Radio

STEM Series: Improving STEM Education in College

Feb 15, 2012

Connecticut employers are saying that students in the state aren't coming into the workforce with the skills they need in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  In part, that's because more than half of students who enter college thinking about a science major end up leaving the sciences before they graduate.  In the third segment of our series on STEM education in Connecticut, WNPR’s Neena Satija reports on  efforts to change that.

Every Thursday morning at 9:30, about a dozen students at the University of Connecticut head over to the Torrey Life Sciences building for a three-hour anatomy and physiology lab. On a recent Thursday, they dissect and kill anesthetized frogs, cutting out their hearts and examining how they work. The biological science major is hard work, says UConn junior Alex Gomez. But now that he’s managed to get through the intro biology classes into a laboratory setting like this one, he’s starting to really enjoy it.  

GOMEZ: “At first, the general classes are more difficult, but then as far as you start doing more involved experiments, you start experiencing what science is really about. I mean you get to start dissecting hearts, frogs, and cats, and you start thinking about what processes are really going on.”

Science is a popular subject at the University of Connecticut. But many students
describe their experience in a similar way as Gomez – slog through the boring introductory lecture courses and eventually you’ll be rewarded with more fun activities like involved experiments. Yale professor Jo Handelsman thinks it shouldn’t be that way, and that teaching methods are largely to blame.

“We’re really misrepresenting science in our introductory courses and turning people off to it because they think it’s something that it’s not," said Handelsman. "A lot of rote memorization, a lot of information and content, and not conceptual thinking, and not a lot of scientific thinking."

Handelsman recently founded the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching. The center trains graduate students on better methods for teaching science, and it also hosts a summer institute for professor and lecturers every year. Xinnian Chen, an assistant professor-in-residence at UConn, attended the institute recently and has since completely changed the way she approaches teaching.

“I noticed that to be a good teacher you will have to think about the way students learn," said Chen.

But that wasn’t Chen’s focus before she attended the summer institute. She was only concerned that her lectures were easy to understand and students thought the exams were fair. Now, she’s focusing on whether her lectures actually motivate students to care about the subject. In order to engage them during lecture, she gave students clickers they can all use to answer a question she might pose during lecture. In an eight a.m. class with 300 students it’s made a world of difference.
“They told me in my evaluation that those activators keep them awake, they really like them,” said Chen.

Chen also asks students to answer questions on their own in small groups – another technique she learned from the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching. Stacey MacGrath is a Ph.D. student at Yale who participates in the center.

“There’s data out there showing that if you poll a group of students, even if the entire class gets the answer wrong, if you let them discuss amongst themselves, they’ll eventually get the answer right even without any kind of outside input," said Chen.

Unlike in Chen’s class, where most students are biological science majors, most of the students in Handelsman’s class are political science and economics majors. She’s engaging them in scientific topics by having them discuss the implications of a bill going through Congress right now about antibiotic resistance. That’s what students were debating in a recent discussion section of the class.

COLE WESTON: “They really said nothing about ways to enforce this, either positive subsidies or negative punishments…
STUDENT: “They also said that there are all of these ethical issues, like…”

Cole Weston is a junior economics major at Yale taking Handelsman’s class. He likes it because he can apply his knowledge of economics to scientific topics. That’s not true for most science courses, he says.

“Most of the discussions you might have in your suites with your roommates about whatever you learned in class today you’re not going to be debating chemistry or biology," said Weston. "You’ll talk about politics or a new bill that was passed, et cetera."

Handelsman is hoping that some of the younger students in her class will actually decide to go into the sciences. But she also wants the non-majors to leave college with a respect for the subject.

“And even if they leave, we think it’s really important for them to understand the nature of science so that when they have to make a decision about taking a drug or not, or buying organic food or not, or making decisions that might affect global warming, they’re understanding the process of how that information was derived," said Handelsman.

Colleges don’t even really need to convert lots of non-science majors, Handelsman says – they just need to retain more of the students who think they’re interested in science to begin with. Right now only 40 percent of those students end up with a science degree. Make that number 50 percent, and we’d be pretty close to the goal of producing nearly a million more college graduates with STEM degrees in the next decade.

For WNPR, I’m Neena Satija.