Yale pushes science education reform


With the input of a newly formed committee, administrators plan to reform science teaching and upgrade science facilities to help combat the drift of prospective science majors away from the field.

In December, University President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey convened the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Teaching Transformation Committee in response to increased attention on the need to improve STEM education nationwide, Levin said. The committee will release a report this semester, which will include plans for new teaching strategies, research-based science courses for freshmen starting next fall and the renovation of science teaching facilities, said Timothy O’Connor, associate provost for science and technology.

“The objective of the committee is to organize a more systematic institutional effort to complement the various STEM teaching initiatives that are already taking place in departments on Science Hill,” Salovey said.

O’Connor, a member of the committee, said the committee’s work was motivated in part by two recent national reports on science education. A working group of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — which included Levin and was co-chaired by molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Jo Handelsman — found in a report released this month that more than 60 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field ultimately pursue a different discipline. That followed a September report by the The Association of American Universities which described an “urgent need” to accelerate reforms in STEM pedagogy.

In the time since Yale’s STEM Teaching Transformation Committee formed, a subset of it compared Yale’s STEM education to programs at other universities. According to the findings, Yale is “not behind” its peers in innovative teaching, but the University lags in the quality of its teaching facilities, O’Connor said.

By the summer of 2013, the committee plans to renovate most large science lecture halls, as well around 20 classrooms in Sloane Physics Laboratory, Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, Osborn Memorial Laboratories and J. W. Gibbs Laboratory, O’Connor said. Some of the renovated classrooms will have multiple projectors, more blackboard space, computer stations and flexible seating that can be rearranged. Salovey said these initial short-term projects are intended to facilitate student interaction in small groups — even in large lecture settings — as well as to maximize flexibility in classrooms.

“Pedagogical methods are ever-evolving and we believe that a key principle is to invest in high-quality teaching spaces that are as flexible as possible,” Salovey said, adding that “improvements in teaching facilities are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for STEM teaching reforms at Yale.”

O’Connor said there are many “grassroots” efforts led by individual professors to educate students in innovative ways. For example, he said some professors are using interactive “clickers,” which enable instructors to immediately collect and view the responses of the entire class, and other courses are sending students abroad to conduct research.

Yale’s Center for Scientific Teaching currently offers training sessions for faculty and postdoctoral and graduate students in teaching methods that engage students.

Handelsman, who is co-director of the center, said she is collaborating with chemistry professor Andrew Phillips to introduce an introductory biology and chemistry course next fall targeted towards freshmen that incorporates lectures, research and field work. Handelsman added that she hopes that more faculty will consider adapting their own teaching methods to better engage students if they see the success of these type of courses.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said she hopes to allow more classes to offer trips abroad. She said she invited a group of faculty to meet with her and other deans in October to discuss introducing more field trip courses to the curriculum.

“Trips can enrich the curriculum and deepen interest and commitment to study in a given field,” Miller said. “I wish I could say that we had special funds to inaugurate the opportunities opened by the new [Yale College academic] calendar, but at this point we do not.”

Of 1,281 students who graduated last year, 334 earned degrees in STEM fields.

Comments

  • yalengineer

    It’s about time. Those lecture halls are incredibly old and it doesn’t make sense to use the 1954 Chemistry Building.

    What ever happened to that Biology building?

  • Yale2013ScienceStudent

    Science is hard to learn. It is even harder to teach science better than a textbook does. I give credit to Yale for trying so hard to improve, but it still has much farther to go before its science teachers are, as a whole, better than textbooks. The facilities upgrade seems irrelevant to me. It’s also news to me that Yale’s science facilities are weaker than those of [which?] other schools. But then again, I chose Yale knowing what the facilities are like now. Perhaps another student was discouraged from attending Yale at all by its allegedly poor facilities.