How to Learn STEM

By Steve Franklin. Photography by Vivian Abagiu.


Ask Calvin Lin, a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Computer Science, his biggest challenge, and he won’t miss a beat: “In three words: keeping students engaged.” 

In his early years teaching, Lin noticed the limitations of lecturing – many students zoned out. To build buy-in for learning about software development, he gave the students a challenge: go break what your classmates made.

“It’s not about me,” he explains. “It’s: How can I get them to think and take risks? Students really like it, even though we’ve given them a lot more work. The key was to try and make it more fun by getting them to test other people’s code.”

Having students troubleshoot each other’s code, letting them fail mightily at lab experiments, involving them in messy problem-solving and heated exchanges over scientific concepts – not one of these strategies has the tidy predictability of a practiced lecture. 

Yet a growing body of research says classroom activities like these that allow students to painstakingly break down content for themselves through what’s known as “active learning,” accomplishes what lectures do not. Namely, students stop being passive listeners and become active participants and thinkers. They develop skills and become more invested in the concepts. 

And, as the College of Natural Sciences’ experience has shown, becoming active participants in their own learning works. These students are more likely to ace their classes, and they cross the graduation stage sooner.

Hands-on Science

Recent analyses of hundreds of studies have found that in courses with an active learning component, students earn better grades, understand scientific concepts better and are less likely to fail or drop out compared to their peers in traditional lecture courses. 

Classrooms and labs in historic Welch Hall are being redesigned for teamwork, interaction and hands-on learning. 

Hands-on, experiential-learning programs in the College of Natural Sciences, like the Freshman Research Initiative, have a profound effect on student outcomes (see Doing Real Science). First-time researchers grapple with real-world scientific and mathematical problems over two or more semesters, conducting work alongside more seasoned scientists and from the trial and error of experimentation. 

Similarly, in courses with active-learning classrooms, students work in teams or individually to wrestle with ideas and problems in real time.

“Students are engaged with the material and they’re challenging each other,” explains Theresa O’Halloran, a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences.

David Vanden Bout, chemistry professor and associate dean for undergraduate education, notes that active learning can take many forms, from a professor who uses explosive demonstrations and challenges the class to describe the scientific concepts on display, to an instructor guiding students through an exercise where they pretend to be molecules interacting with one another.

“It plays out differently for every person, but the goal across the board is to have people thinking in the classroom and asking questions,” Vanden Bout says.

O’Halloran found over the years that simply breaking up her lecture with complex problems – ones with more than one answer –
activates learning.

“If you were to step in my class and compare it in 2000 versus now, what you’d experience is a much noisier classroom. As students break into groups to discuss problems, they’re arguing about the proper answer, trying to convince each other of the correct answer,” says O’Halloran. “I find that really exciting.”

Faculty members also use challenging questions during class to assess how well students understand the material, adjusting on the fly to focus more on the concepts they see students struggling with during discussions. Vanden Bout believes giving all students time and space to grapple with conceptual questions is key: “By trying to articulate ideas, students are forced to encounter whether they really know the material or they don’t.”

Facing Facts

More time spent in active discussion can mean less time for course instructors to impart facts. However, in an era when content is only as far away as the nearest smartphone, experts recommend a different focus. More and more faculty in the College of Natural Sciences have turned their attention to helping students learn instead how to use information—with critical thinking that helps them decipher facts, evaluate claims, and approach thorny problems in new ways.

Students in Professor Calvin Lin’s classes learn programming skills using digital ‘critters’ that compete against one another in a simulated environment.   

In STEM subjects in particular, students need not just information but skills to navigate new information. 

“One of the most important things we can do in teaching the sciences is realize that, every day our content basis is growing – every day,” says Vanden Bout. “Being a scientist is not about walking around with a notebook full of facts that you can pull from your brain at any second. It is much more about a process of thinking.”

A faculty task force formed in 2016 is working to transform the curriculum across the college and build these 21st century skills for learners. Already analysts within the college have started evaluating courses and providing faculty with feedback about how to give more students opportunities to engage in critical thinking actively during class. 

Leading the Way

New classrooms that are state of the art and student-centric in Welch Hall support active learning. These spaces have clusters of small-group tables, instead of front-facing rows. The tables and most surfaces along the walls act as giant whiteboards to support student discussions. Some classrooms are even equipped with technology that allows educators to learn what is working and to guide students to their next "aha" moment.

“Students learn much more when they actually take ownership of learning,” Lin says. “That’s really what active learning is about.”