Students are making their voices heard in science lectures — around the country and at Yale.
Over the past four years, the University has facilitated annual faculty training and discussions on campus about interactive science teaching methods. Most professors interviewed said they are interested in including or have already incorporated these methods into science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes.
“There is more and more evidence piling up that suggests [an interactive] learning environment — especially for introductory STEM courses — is beneficial to a much wider range of individuals from different backgrounds who are interested in pursuing science,” said Mark Graham, evaluation director at the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching.
Of the nine STEM professors interviewed, seven expressed enthusiasm for incorporating “active learning” into lectures and more generally into scientific teaching.
Associate professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Michael Koelle said he has recently observed growing interest in making introductory courses more interactive to attract prospective STEM majors. For example, faculty teaching the introductory biology sequence BIOL 101–104 have incorporated components of interactive exercises in their classes, Koelle said.
Geology and geophysics professor Jeffrey Park said students have the tendency to become passive when they are presented with graphics and slideshow presentations, noticing that students rarely take hand-written notes anymore. “Flipped” or interactive classrooms can force students to actively engage with difficult concepts, he said.
STEM professors interviewed said there are various ways of implementing active learning components in classes, ranging from flipped lectures to research opportunities. Physics professor Richard Casten, who previously taught “Understanding the World through Physics” — a highly interactive introductory physics course for non-STEM majors — said he and his students discussed daily life applications of physics theories in classes he called “discussions” instead of “lectures.” He estimated that there were around 40 questions voiced per session, many of which changed his original agenda for the class.
Physics professor Steve Lamoreaux said class time could be spent on students presenting their solutions to problems they previously completed in front of their peers.
“The only way to learn science is by solving problems and doing experiments,” he said. “Listening to a lecture is like watching a cooking show: you don’t know how until you do the cooking yourself.”
Geology and geophysics assistant professor Bhart-Anjan Bhullar ’05 said research-based seminars — in which students produce original research and may even get published — can excite and motivate students, citing molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Scott Strobel’s “Rainforest Expedition Course and Laboratory” as an example.
Peter Wyckoff ’16 said he enjoyed his introductory geology class because of its small size and the fall break field trip, which made the class feel more “real and alive.” Joana Andoh ’17 said she thinks introductory classes could provide more interactive components, and added that although weekly sections attempt to provide an engaging atmosphere, they are often dependent on the teaching fellow or group dynamic.
However, several professors also said experiments such as these must be balanced with robust and structured coursework of the traditional kind in order to supply students with information and develop their critical thinking skills.
“Introductory courses must contain enough content to allow people to partake in scientific conversations, so there will inevitably be a fair amount of class time devoted to ensuring that the basic vocabulary is presented,” said David Evans, a professor of geology and geophysics.
Some professors suggested that a synthesis between traditional lectures and interactive elements can be reached in order to both instruct and inspire students. Park said splitting class time so that it is half traditional informative lecture and half interactive activities would work well, while Bhullar envisions a broken-up lecture with frequent pauses for student interaction.
But professors acknowledged that interactive learning has its shortcomings. Casten, who only accepted 40 out of 170 applicants for his class, said he was not convinced that his interactive style would work for a large class — a sentiment echoed by several other professors.
Another obstacle is the additional work interactive education creates for both faculty and students. In a flipped classroom model, students are expected to do the majority of their work outside of class. For professors, these additional projects may strain the tension between their research and teaching requirements.
Still, faculty said they are aware of the general attrition rate of STEM students at Yale, which many attributed to the formality and rigidity of introductory STEM courses. Casten noted that students often get scared away by the material, but would not be if they felt comfortable asking questions. He also said the way introductory physics is taught at Yale can be a turn-off for non-science students and also many prospective physics majors.
Neurobiology professor Amy Arnsten said professors sometimes create hostile classroom environments.
“All too often, science classes in the United States are confusing because the professor does not really know the material and takes on a macho attitude to cover this up, saying the students are not smart enough to understand the material,” she said. “I think this has created a global situation where those who are already insecure about their scientific abilities due to societal stereotypes are further alienated from a career in science.”