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5 Key Questions about Modern STEM Teaching and Learning

5 Key Questions about Modern STEM Teaching and Learning

​Near the start of the academic year, many faculty members across the College of Natural Sciences welcome guests into their classrooms--fellow educators who are invited to observe active-learning strategies and award-winning teaching in action. This is Teaching Discovery Day in the College of Natural Sciences, and it is just one element of a college-wide push toward lifting up excellence in educational activities.

Sarah Eichhorn is the executive director of TIDES.
"A UT education is about faculty and students learning how to create, build, probe, discover, and solve together," President Gregory Fenves said in this week's State of the University address. ​But how does a flagship University make sure it is continually living up to its reputation for world-changing teaching? And how does a place like the College of Natural Sciences, where nearly every Longhorn undergraduate takes several classes, ensure that it is effectively preparing a new generation of both scientific leaders and science-literate thinkers?

Sarah Eichhorn, the new executive director of the College's Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science (TIDES), has given these questions a lot of thought. A mathematician by training, she came to the College of Natural Sciences after having served as the Associate Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning and as the Associate Dean of Distance Learning at the University of California, Irvine. With extensive experience in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teaching innovation, course design, and online learning, she comes to the College just as TIDES--the three-year old educational center established as a result of the College strategic plan--is set to oversee implementation of an ambitious set of recommendations from faculty who served on the College's 21st Century Undergraduate Education task forces. Those groups have put forward detailed plans for strategic curriculum planning, extending experiential education opportunities to all students, and improving teaching evaluation. Eichhorn also oversees the Freshman Research Initiative and a variety of initiatives to support excellence in teaching throughout the College. We posed questions to her as the College's second Teaching Discovery Day got underway.
What do you see as the most pressing challenge in undergraduate science and mathematics education today?

Today's students are digital natives, accustomed to instant access to information and can quickly navigate to online content for any occasion. This challenges us to rethink STEM curriculum and really focus in on concepts, skills and habits of mind that we want to impart to students as opposed to information recall. Everything from teaching material in course-sized bundles, the use of traditional textbooks, and the existence of majors has been questioned. It will be a challenge for science educators to rethink our instructional practices for our digital native students. We'll need to determine what traditional components still make sense and what new innovations might improve learning.

How does one know when students are effectively engaged with what they're learning?

This is actually a surprisingly complex and difficult question. Determining effective student engagement requires us to really think about what we want students to be able to do after taking our courses and then figure out how to measure that outcome. I think most educators have had the experience of grading an exam and being surprised and frustrated to find the students did poorly on questions the educators felt they had emphasized in class extensively and gone over multiple times.

When this occurs, I like to ask myself two questions. First, was this a good exam question and related to my goals for the student learning in the course? And, if so, second, how could the students and I have known earlier that they were struggling with this? One of my least favorite comments to get on an end-of-course evaluation is, "This instructor was excellent and I really enjoyed the course and understood everything she did in class, I just did not do well on the homework and exams." Although the student may put this in the positive comments section on the evaluation form, this is a signal that the student was not really engaged with the content effectively, and the course did not provide enough support to really practice using the content authentically.

Technology has transformed many aspects of how students engage with learning. What do you see as the greatest opportunity related to technology in science education?

I see personalization and increased feedback as the most transformative opportunities afforded by new educational technologies. IBM created an artificial intelligence-based machine called "Watson," which learned to play Jeopardy and went on to beat the best human contestants. Recently this technology has been made available to educators to provide intelligent feedback to students. For example, Georgia Tech had an online computer science course with a teaching assistant named "Jill Watson," which was secretly IBM's artificial intelligence platform. This virtual TA successfully answered a myriad of student questions in the online forums, and the majority of the students never detected that "Jill" was not human. I am excited about the prospect of leveraging artificial intelligence to answer routine and repetitive student questions to free up instructor time for richer student interactions. I am also enchanted by the prospects of using machine learning to create intelligent tutoring systems which identify students' individual errors and misconceptions, provide targeted feedback and create personalized learning pathways to help each student navigate course content.

What resources or support exist now for new educators with more limited experience teaching?

I am really delighted by the CNS Teaching Discovery Day. Faculty typically have many opportunities to see their colleagues' research though journals, conferences, seminars, etc., but often have less insight into what their peers do in the classroom. The Teaching Discovery Day is a fantastic opportunity for new (and veteran) instructors to observe colleagues' teaching and get ideas for approaches that may suit their classrooms.

I am hoping TIDES can also be a source of effective support for new instructors. We just announced a "STEM Teaching Hacks" workshop series for fall, and we plan to follow this up with many more professional development opportunities for faculty who want either a quick tweak or a more profound revamp of their instructional practices.

What is the value for students of learning at a top-tier research university where many of the faculty not only teach but also make discoveries that add to the scientific community's body of knowledge?

One of the reasons I was really excited to join TIDES was the impressive Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). FRI leverages the research activities of the faculty to positively impact the student experience and improve undergraduate retention in the sciences. I am looking forward to building upon this area of strength and finding more opportunities to leverage research activities for student gains.

On another front, as a research university, our curriculum can be very responsive to changes in scientific fields. I hope TIDES can be a resource to departments and faculty as they continuously improve their course offerings to keep up with new developments within their disciplines and evolving demands for jobs in the field.

Finally, I am a huge fan of "scientific teaching," where one applies scientific practices to teaching and learning. Instructors can design experiments and gather data about student progress towards learning goals to help inform decisions about instructional practices. I like utilizing scientific approaches to help evaluate the true impact of educational interventions and teaching methods to help select the most effective practices from amongst the myriad of traditional and innovative options.

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Comments 1

Guest - Cornell Thompson on Friday, 22 September 2017 05:07

Hey really nice article very informational.

Hey really nice article very informational.
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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

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