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Thinking Smarter About Teaching Science

BY: Mary Ellen Kuhn
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Tyler DewittEducational theories abound, but they’re not always relevant to teaching science effectively, observed science educator Tyler DeWitt, the 2016 Fennema Lecturer. His Monday lecture, “What’s New: Process, Products and Authentic Learning in STEM,” presented a variety of tips and tactics to help university instructors engage more effectively with their students.

DeWitt schooled those in attendance on ways to take the classroom experience in new directions that are very different from simply reading textbooks and attending lectures. Here’s a look at some of the ideas and concepts he described.

Design Thinking. With this approach, said DeWitt, an instructor is advised to think first about the skills students should have upon completing a course and only after that to think about how to go about teaching the course. It seems basic, said DeWitt, but it’s often overlooked.

Concept Framework. This is a way to organize the key concepts for a particular class. “It can be incredibly useful, especially when you begin to see hierarchies develop,” DeWitt noted. Having such a framework in place allows the instructor to keep referring back to it in order to ensure that key points are covered as the course progresses.

Concept Inventories. These are tests designed to assess a particular set of knowledge to ensure that students are learning what they need to learn.

Problem-Based Learning. This is an approach that DeWitt thinks can be particularly useful for communicating scientific information. As its name suggests, it entails presenting students with complex problems to solve.

Delphi Approach. With this approach, course planners solicit input from experts, such as industry professionals, and use that input to design curricula. “It’s become very trendy, very in vogue to look to the real world … and then to design our curriculums based on that,” said DeWitt.

Constructivist Learning. This term is used to describe an approach to learning that allows students to gain practical experiences and reflect on them.

DeWitt also discussed several currently trending approaches to improving learning outcomes. He noted that some instructors are making effective use of clicker response systems in which students use clickers to respond to queries from the instructor. This is a useful tool for keeping students engaged and attentive and gauging their understanding of a topic.

The lecturer also discussed the idea of flipped classrooms in which the traditional teaching and learning process is flipped—things that students might normally do as homework, like problems and writing exercises, are done in the classroom and listening to lectures (on video) takes place outside the classroom.

Each year the annual Fennema Lectureship brings a prominent academician to the annual event to address timely topics important to the teaching and learning process.

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