With 40,000 undergraduates and a high percentage of students drawn from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, Florida International University (FIU) generates more science and engineering graduates who are members of minority groups than any other school in the nation. For that reason, FIU feels a strong responsibility to forge an engaging, effective science curriculum, says physics professor Laird Kramer. “We need to find ways to remove barriers to learning—like the traditional large lecture environment—that tend to undermine underrepresented minorities.”
With its new HHMI science education grant, the school’s first, FIU will create a more hands-on, active learning environment in introductory science courses. Its redesigned program will draw heavily from the successful modeling instruction technique, in which students design and test their own models of scientific phenomena.
Kramer and his colleagues first tried out model-centered instruction in 2003 with an introductory physics course. “As a scientist I go through cycles of building and testing and extending models of the physical world, and we do that too in the modeling class,” he says.
Instead of lecturing, the instructors teach problem-solving techniques and methods of inquiry to small groups of students. The students put these skills to use in developing and testing their models of real-world physics phenomena, such as acceleration or force. “We’re trying to replicate what we do in a research environment in as many ways as possible,” Kramer says. After the physics modeling initiative was established at FIU, the number of physics majors at the school increased almost threefold, and students’ grades and attitudes about physics improved as well. The program also won an award from the Physics Teacher Education Coalition.
With its HHMI grant, FIU will extend modeling and other group-based teaching strategies to many other science and math courses. “We know that we can scale up this kind of thing and apply it comprehensively to physics, biology, and chemistry introductory courses at FIU,” Kramer says. “It’s largely the financial challenges that have limited us, but HHMI’s grant will now help us to overcome those.”