Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science

As part of the overhaul, students receive remote controls to answer questions in class. Credit Max Whittaker for The New York Times. WTF?

What sounds to me like a bizarre trend is taking off in the US, according to this article at The New York Times.

DAVIS, Calif. — Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling piece of paper. The instructor speaks from a podium for nearly the entire 80 minutes. Most students take notes. Some scan the Internet. A few doze.

In a nearby hall, an instructor, Catherine Uvarov, peppers students with questions and presses them to explain and expand on their answers. Every few minutes, she has them solve problems in small groups. Running up and down the aisles, she sticks a microphone in front of a startled face, looking for an answer. Students dare not nod off or show up without doing the reading.

Both are introductory chemistry classes at the University of California campus here in Davis, but they present a sharp contrast — the traditional and orderly but dull versus the experimental and engaging but noisy. Breaking from practices that many educators say have proved ineffectual, Dr. Uvarov’s class is part of an effort at a small but growing number of colleges to transform the way science is taught.

I majored in Physics and Math.  The quiet in the first class is the sound of people thinking.  I remember it well.

I also note that the most successful students were — in addition to being capable of understanding the material — what might be called ‘science nerds.’  I remember being fascinated with things like astronomy and geology as young child, without the slightest bit of encouragement from anyone at all.  It must have been some kind of inborn tendency.

“We have not done a good job of teaching the intro courses or gateway courses in science and math,” said Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities and a former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. “Teaching freshman- and sophomore-level classes has not had a high enough priority, and that has to change.”

Multiple studies have shown that students fare better with a more active approach to learning, using some of the tools being adopted here at Davis, while in traditional classes, students often learn less than their teachers think.

I suspect gains from non-traditional methods of teaching will not be long-lasting. Without both keen interest and ability, a student is simply not going to succeed.  But this is simply not acceptable to our elite class, who are in massive denial on a large number of areas:

Employers and government officials have spent years complaining that there are too few people — and especially too few women and blacks — with degrees in math and science.

Rather than admit that differences between men and women might be real (ditto for race) — which cannot be true because elite opinion has said so — blame is shifted to teaching methods:

“A lot of science faculty have seen themselves as gatekeepers,” said Marco Molinaro, an assistant vice provost here at Davis and director of its effort to overhaul science courses. The university has received grants from the Association of American Universities, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Rather than try to help students who falter in introductory classes, he said, “they have seen it as their job to weed people out and limit access to upper-level courses.”

That sounds standard to me.

For example, I cannot sing. There would absolutely zero point in my attempting to learn how. I just do not have the ability.  I was poor at sports too.  People just vary — deal with it.