Sciences to revise teaching strategies

As science departments work to enhance teaching quality and improve course offerings for non-science majors, several department heads said limited resources hinder progress.

A curricular review released by the Yale College Dean’s Office in November found an “urgent need for widespread pedagogical innovation” in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. While several department heads said faculty constraints limit the number of small lectures and seminars they can provide, molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Jo Handelsman, co-director of Yale’s Center for Scientific Teaching, said she is trying to spread effective teaching techniques that apply to courses of all sizes.

“The Yale faculty are extraordinarily talented and there is no reason we can’t value both aspects of being a professor,” Handelsman said. “We need to invest in our teaching in ways that reinforce the research mission.”

In the coming weeks, the curricular review’s Steering Committee and the Provost’s Office will form working groups to assess concerns of the report and develop solutions, said Timothy O’Connor, associate provost for science and technology.

Handelsman, who co-authored a book called “Scientific Teaching” published in 2006, said many studies have shown that the traditional lecture is much less effective than teaching methods that actively engage students. Across the country, she said, many students decide against pursuing science majors because they become frustrated with the way the introductory courses are taught. Handelsman said the Center for Scientific Teaching is currently developing a program to train small groups of faculty in proven teaching methods, such as presenting concepts in practical scenarios.

Kurt Zilm, director of undergraduate studies for the Chemistry Department, said introductory chemistry courses would ideally include more demonstrations, and he hopes to eventually offer lectures in interactive laboratory settings. But the department is pressed for faculty to teach those more intimate courses, Zilm said, since the department must meet the needs of pre-med students as well as chemistry majors and graduate students. Zilm added that the administration has supported his efforts, but progress will take time.

“We are stretched so thin that just to cover the things we need to complete is a challenge,” Kilm says.

Stanley Eisenstat, director of undergraduate studies for the Computer Science Department, said in an email that it is “difficult to allocate additional resources to offering well-taught introductory courses” because its faculty count has remained roughly the same over the past 25 years, while computer science departments at Yale’s peer schools have grown “dramatically.”

The curricular review found dissatisfaction among non-science majors taking STEM courses even though more than 80 courses have been developed and enhanced for non-science majors since 2005, according to the report. Michael Koelle, a former director of undergraduate studies for Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, said in an email that faculty have increased efforts to cater to nonmajors, but courses required for the MB&B major demand many of the department’s resources.

“I think all the science departments are in an ongoing struggle to mount courses for non-science majors in a way that really gives the students a serious exposure to science and also really engages the students,” Koelle said.

Yale College currently offers about 50 STEM courses for nonmajors per year, according to the report.

Correction: Jan. 12. An earlier version of this article included Stanley Eisenstat, director of undergraduate studies for the Computer Science Department, as saying that the number of faculty in Yale’s other STEM departments has grown “dramatically.” In fact, Eisenstat was referring to the number of faculty in computer science departments at Yale’s peer schools.

Comments

  • chorleywood

    In the context of this discussion, especially when faculty resources are invoked, it’s important to understand the tremendously divergent faculty teaching loads among the different science departments.