By Linda Weiford, WSU News 

Davis-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Wanted: Professors, post doctorate and graduate students from Washington State University who want to teach science not just as a class but as an event. Must be creative, motivated and willing to learn how to alter the traditional one-way lecture approach of teaching biology, botany, engineering – you name it. Several-day commitment is required.

On July 21-24, the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Teaching Academy and the Provost’s Office are hosting a “Scientific Teaching” workshop on the Pullman campus. Taught by members of the National Academies Summer Institute, 24 pre-registered participants from WSU will learn how to improve undergraduate-level teaching and draw diverse students into STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The educators who complete the workshop will try innovative teaching methods in their classrooms, assess the results and eventually partner with other faculty members to help them learn new strategies.

Transform conventional model

The pilot workshop is part of a growing national effort to improve basic college science courses. Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning majors in STEM fields end up changing their degree subjects or not graduating at all.

Concerned that the U.S. will face a critical shortage of scientists, researchers, inventors and STEM professors, President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has urged colleges and universities to find ways to retain students. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-executive-report-final_2-13-12.pdf)

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Teaching basic STEM classes requires some out-of-the-box thinking, said William B. Davis, associate dean for undergraduate education with WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. (Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU News)

One way proposed is to change how introductory STEM classes are taught.

“A growing body of research shows that engaging students as active participants rather than passive listeners helps them retain information and increases their critical thinking skills,” said William B. Davis, associate dean for undergraduate education with the veterinary college. “But in order to implement changes in teaching methods, faculty development and acceptance are crucial.”

And that’s where the National Academies – a nonprofit institution made up of distinguished scientists, engineers, physicians and researchers – comes in. Teaming with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, academy members conduct workshops at one institution in each region of the country.

But the session planned at WSU is the first of its kind, said Davis, who helped bring it here.

“The intent is for it to have a broad impact and reach across disciplines. The focus is as much about teaching engineering as it is biology,” he said.

More dialogue, less monologue

In the world of revised STEM education, students would still gather in classrooms and lecture halls. But instead of a professor cramming facts and data into a 50-minute oration, “he or she would augment the lecture with active learning,” said Davis.

“This means students wouldn’t just sit and listen,” he said. “They’d also learn through discussion and problem solving.”

For example, teams of students might brainstorm to apply scientific principles and reasoning to a real-world problem or mystery, such as: Why does influenza spread mostly during winter months? After student groups reach a conclusion and submit answers by laptop or clickers, the professor or teacher would facilitate classroom-wide discussion and debate.

“By engaging students beyond the conventional lecture, they’re no longer sponges absorbing content,” Davis said. “They’re applying lessons to real life. They’re even making personal discoveries.”

Which might remind students of why they wanted to become chemists, engineers or geologists in the first place – and why they shouldn’t give up.

For more information on the summer institute and to register, go to http://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/teachingacademy/programs/Workshops/NAS_Summer2014/index.aspx