Students taking the typical college science course know the drill: the professor lectures, writes on the board, and asks a few questions. Students take notes and read textbooks. In a large introductory science class, any in-depth discussion waits for a recitation section or tutorial led by a teaching assistant later in the week. Many courses are run this way simply because that’s how it’s always been done, says Judith Eisen, professor of biology at the University of Oregon.
“People who teach science at the college level don’t typically receive a lot of training in pedagogy, so they teach as their professors taught,” says Eisen. “A lot of it—especially the lecture part—was not very interactive, and it’s sort of a passive learning experience.”
The University of Oregon is now embarking on a project it hopes will change the way faculty teach general science classes. The Science Literacy Program (SLP), funded by an HHMI grant, will help faculty from four departments—chemistry, physics, biology, and geological sciences—transform the classes they offer to non-science majors.
The SLP will train faculty in teaching strategies that are known to be effective and will encourage them to share that knowledge with their colleagues on campus. The school will also select a number of undergraduate and graduate science students as SLP fellows, who will learn the teaching methods and help professors plan and teach the courses. “That’s very good training for scientists to learn how to speak to the broader public,” says Michael Raymer, professor of physics. “Teaching science to non-majors is really perfect training for that kind of skill development.”
New courses will span departments and incorporate more interactive, inquiry-based learning techniques. For example, faculty from physics, biology, and geological sciences will collaborate to teach a course called “Scientific Revolutions—Major Advances That Altered Our Understanding of the World.” Through interdisciplinary courses, the SLP program aims to improve the scientific literacy of all students, giving them the tools to make decisions in their daily lives that involve science, health, and technology, Eisen says. And by training students as teaching fellows, the University of Oregon hopes to improve the quality of science teaching for the next generation.