Undergraduates explore new ways to understand science
When Alice Boone looked over the course options for her sophomore year at the University of Alabama, she was intrigued by a new science course called "Introduction to Inquiry." Billed as a "discovery-based" class, it promised to give students experience solving real scientific problems.
"It wasn't presented like a regular science class where you memorize everything, take a test and move on to the next idea," recalls Boone. "This was hands-on. It was like real science."
So Boone signed upone of seven adventurous students willing to give the innovative approach to teaching and learning science a try. She wasn't disappointed.
"The things that I learned in that classthe concepts and theoriesstuck better because I had to actually go out and find them out for myself," she says.
At the University of Delaware (UD), 750 miles away, senior John Dueber enjoyed a similar learning experience in his final "problem-based learning" (PBL) course, "Intermediary Metabolism." The course is one of several at UD that challenge teams of students to investigate complex, real-world problems. Dueber says that the class, like other PBL classes he took during his undergraduate years, taught him more than just "background material"the kind of information he might forget soon after handing in an exam. Instead, the courses taught him how to work collaboratively with others to solve scientific problems, forging "the same skills one has to use in everyday life," he says.
Although many undergraduate science classes continue to be taught in a traditional, lecture-based format, a growing number of colleges and universities are experimenting with active and collaborative learning. (HHMI supports both "Introduction to Inquiry" at the University of Alabama and several PBL courses at the University of Delaware, with grants from its Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Program.)
Whether termed "discovery-based," "problem-based," or even "student-based," these classes rest on the same principle: motivating students to go beyond memorizing facts to develop a deeper knowledge of the material. In such classes, students work in small groups on real problems, learning to analyze, do research, think independently, arrive at conclusions and defend their positions. (Problem-Based Learning in Practice)
Reprinted from the July 2000 HHMI Bulletin, Vol. 13, No. 1,