University holds symposium to discuss Gateway Sciences Initiative

The University held its second annual Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences last month. The event evaluated the progress of the Gateway Sciences Initiative (GSI), which aims to improve the way science is taught.  Around 400 educators and students attended.

GSI was in an exploratory phase for the past year, during which time 11 experiments were funded by the Provost to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The symposium allowed professors and students to discuss how these programs perform, what they want to do in the future and to listen to similar programs that exist across the country.

President Daniels opened the event by discussing the progress that the University has made so far, mentioning the construction of the new undergraduate teaching labs.

“We are reimagining and creating laboratory space that reflects how science and discovery takes place in the 21st century,” he said. “As exciting as this building is, and it is a very exciting opportunity for us, the creation of the new physical space would mean little if that was all it was. What makes the project truly remarkable is that it embodies … the commitment to fundamentally rethink how we educate our young scientists from the very moment they step onto their campus.”

He went on to explain that 50 percent of students nationwide who start college with an interest in science or engineering drop out of those majors. At Hopkins, in 2006, about 60 percent of undergraduates entered with an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) but over 25 percent of these students did not graduate with a STEM degree.

“These models reveal an educational model that is out of sync, sometimes dramatically out of sync, with changing student expectations and what research tells us about how students learn best,” Daniels said.

However, he was very pleased with the large turnout and the dedication towards improving science and engineering classes at Hopkins. “Over 300 colleagues shows the strength … shows the depth and intensity of our commitment,” he said.

Daniels also thinks that this program could be very important for the way that both current and prospective students view the University.

The first keynote speaker was Robin Wright from the University of Minnesota. She started off by explaining how her teaching style changed from a lecture, where students only want to memorize what’s going to be on the test, to a class environment where students actually want to learn.

“My goal is to share my journey,” she explained. “I was disappointed in what my students actually could do. I wanted them to do more than just answering questions on multiple choice tests.”

She wanted to develop a method that stopped students from asking what was going to be on the test just to memorize the information and promptly forget it after the exam was over.  She wanted them to learn more than just the concepts in the textbooks, such as how to communicate with each other. She decided to give her students weekly quizzes, where they would first have to answer the questions on their own and then try to figure out the answers in groups. The students would usually come to class prepared because they didn’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their peers.

“This ended up working so well that it’s an unbelievable accident,” Wright said. “I [used to do] all the work for them rather than inviting opportunities for them to do the work.”

She also decided to revamp her grading system. Since long-term memories aren’t created immediately, she allows students to have a second chance at the end of the semester with a cumulative final. If they know the material by the end of the semester, then she is satisfied that they will continue to know the material, and grades her students accordingly.

Vice Provost Scott Zeger, who has spearheaded the initiative, enjoyed Wright’s talk because it was interactive.

“She ran the … keynote address as she does her classroom really with posing a series of questions and discussing with a large group,” he said. “She showed selected slides … as provocation for interchange among the audience with her. You can engage people [with discussion] much better than with just a lecture.”

Next, interim provost Jonathan Bagger spoke about how his office chose which proposals would be funded and how he thinks the program is going so far.

“Some people say Johns Hopkins professors don’t care about teaching and learning and that’s simply not true,” he said.

Out of the 11 funded proposals, six were discussed at the symposium. One of these proposals was a freshman biology class, where students were able to study phage in a lab setting. They are given independence while doing these experiments and get to blog about their experiences.

Chemistry professor Jane Greco talked about the new class for students who took AP Chemistry in high school but don’t want to go straight into Organic Chemistry as a freshman. Greco wanted to make sure that students learned the topics that they needed to succeed in advanced chemistry courses that they may not have learned in high school. The class is currently limited due to lab space, but more students will be able to take the courses once the new teaching labs are built.

“It was probably the best decision that I ever made,” freshman Raidizon Mercedes said. “I didn’t know what to expect, I thought it was going to be a very difficult course. I actually learned a lot [and] it motivated me to want to learn more and possibly even major in chemistry.”

Other projects included an active learning classroom where class time was used for solving problems instead of lecturing and peer mentoring for Intro Chemistry. The mentoring program started last spring, and also exists for calculus and physics classes. They found that students in this pilot program have a better overall GPA.

Junior Josh Scaralia has been tutoring for two years and thinks that the program really helps students learn the material themselves.

“They’ve been doing the pilot program, which is amazing. It helps the students not only academically but in a way that allows them to help themselves,” he said. “They’re becoming more self sufficient in that they will teach each other more than we’re actually teaching them.”

The third keynote speaker was not at the symposium, but on a computer screen, which was fitting as she talked to the group about online education. Not only did her online programs find a way to make students interact with the material, but they were able to reach students who might not have had access to quality education otherwise. She also spoke about the importance of peer grading, as it makes the students learn the material.

“We can allow people to become lifelong learners,” she said.

To conclude the symposium, the scientists in the room were able to hear the perspectives of a liberal arts educator from the President of Dickinson University.

“It is especially important for you to be familiar with what we do because of the results we achieve in the liberal arts field,” he said.

He promoted active learning and fieldwork in all types of classes, and stressed that learning has to be a part of the University’s brand. He said that a student applying to Hopkins might not expect personal learning to be a part of its brand, and that this is the moment for Hopkins to reshift its brand if it wants to.

Zeger thought that the Symposium went extremely well.

“One exciting thing to me about the Symposium is that people are changing, over the undergraduate and graduate level, across the University, because they’re learning about ideas,” he said. “There’s just an inherent desire among the faculty to do well in their teaching that they’re finding things that work, they’re changing things. There are really good ideas now of how to do better.”

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