The challenge of improving U.S. math and science education is not limited to K-12, but instead extends to undergraduate and graduate education. Many of the problems of K-12 education plague undergraduate education as well, as three speakers at the conference explained. Bruce Alberts, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and editor-in-chief at Science magazine, discussed how to give all students the knowledge and skills they need to be effective workers and citizens in the 21st century. Robin Wright, associate dean in the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development at the University of Minnesota, provided a concrete example of the kinds of instruction Alberts described. And Lorrie A. Shepard, dean of education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, described some of the cognitive science that supports successful reforms in STEM education.
Bruce Alberts: “If you watch American television today, or listen to our political debates, you have to worry about what’s happening to our scientific temper.”
THE ROLE OF UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION IN
TRANSFORMING MATH AND SCIENCE EDUCATION
Scientists need to achieve a much higher degree of influence throughout their own nations and the world, Bruce Alberts said. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, called for a “scientific temper” that
incorporates the creativity, rationality, openness, and tolerance inherent in science. The mathematician, biologist, and author Jacob Bronowski spoke to the same idea in his 1956 book Science and Human Values:
The society of scientists is simple because it has a directing purpose: to explore the truth. Nevertheless, it has to solve the problem of every society, which is to find a compromise between … (the individual and the group). It must encourage the single scientist to be independent, and the body of scientists to be tolerant. From these basic conditions, which form the prime values, there follows step by step a … (range) of values: dissent, freedom of thought and speech, justice, honor, human dignity, and self-respect.1
Bronowski also wrote of the way in which science has humanized values. As the scientific spirit spread, it generated calls for freedom, justice, and respect. But “if you watch American television today, or listen to our political debates, you have to worry about what’s happening to our scientific temper,” Alberts said.
Giving Students 21st-Century Skills
The vision of science education laid out in reports like Rising Above the Gathering Storm and A Framework for K-12 Science Education would prepare children to be problem solvers in the workplace, said Alberts, with the abilities and can-do attitude that are needed to be competitive in the global economy. This vision for science education also precisely fits the needs for workforce skills widely expressed by U.S. businesses. As Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker pointed out in their 1993 book Thinking for a Living, the workplace skills needed for success in the modern world economy include:
• A high capacity for abstract, conceptual thinking;
• The ability to apply that capacity for abstract thought to complex real-world problems—including problems that involve the use of scientific and technical knowledge—that are nonstandard, full of ambiguities, and have more than one right answer; and
• The capacity to function effectively in an environment in which communication skills are vital and in groups.2
As president of the National Academy of Sciences, Alberts took on the challenge of education reform that would produce these kinds of skills.
1 Bronowski, Jacob. 1956, Science and Human Values. New York: Harper and Brothers. pp. 87-88.
2 Marshall, Ray, and Marc Turner. 1993. Thinking for a Living: Education and the Wealth of Nations. New York: Basic Books, p. 80.
“When you look at how the system works, it’s the faculties of arts and sciences that define what science education is. They teach the future teachers [and] the parents. What you do in Biology 101 at the University of Wisconsin will define science for those adults for whom that’s the last science course they ever have.”
However, most science teaching at the undergraduate level does not lead people to understand what science is, Alberts stated. Undergraduates are not allowed to generate and evaluate scientific evidence. They do not learn about the development of scientific knowledge and the difference between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge. They do not participate productively in scientific practices and discourse to gain the skills laid out in the framework for K-12 science education.
A major barrier to progress is an overreliance on lecturing, said Alberts. Talking to 500 students in a large lecture hall may be an inexpensive way to teach, but it does not give students the knowledge or skills they need. Many better approaches have been developed that do not entail a great increase in cost, but few faculty members know about them, much less use them.
Alberts’ “current obsession” at Science is to use the magazine to create more coherence in education. For example, the magazine has named 24 monthly winners of a contest for the best free science education websites.3 In 2011, it announced a contest for the best inquiry laboratory modules for introductory college science. Modules require between 8 and 50 hours of student work and are readily transferrable so that others can use the same module in their institution.
At the time of the conference, Alberts was working on an editorial about the need for a specially trained scientist in each major school district to connect that district’s schools to the wealth of available resources. These specially trained individuals could be connectors or adaptors between the school system and the scientific community. “I have concluded that school districts badly need such an inside person with science in his or her soul who really cares deeply about science and is a scientist.” For example, these individuals could coordinate inputs from the local scientific and engineering communities. “I know from my time at UCSF that there are many talented science graduate students and postdocs who would be interested in such a career if a productive new pathway for entry could be developed and promoted.”
Efforts to improve science education are going on around the world, Alberts concluded. As noted by the Gathering Storm report, the United States needs to take bold steps to meet the competition.
TEACHING MORE BY TALKING LESS
Students do not need more information, said Robin Wright, associate dean, Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development at the University of Minnesota. They have a device at their fingertips that provides them with access to all of the knowledge of humankind. What college students need is the ability to do something with that information, to be skeptical, to become sophisticated consumers of information, to create—“the hard part,” Wright said.
Robin Wright: “My job now is not the source of all knowledge. It’s the coach. I look at my students as collaborators, as emerging colleagues. And they haven’t disappointed me once. It’s remarkable.”
Wright has asked her undergraduates what they should be able to do after four years of college. Among their answers are the following:
• Be ready for more school.
• Apply knowledge, not just have it.
• Think critically and analyze different situations.
• Get a job.
• Develop leadership skills.
• Understand other cultures.
• Manage time well.
• Be able to write well.
• Have experience with research and a laboratory setting.
• Understand scientific writing.
As for what students want from their college instructors, Wright provided the following list:
• Engage us.
• Challenge us.
• Help us develop critical thinking, analytical, and communication skills.
• Make your learning goals transparent to us.
• Provide opportunities for research.
• Use analogies, not jargon.
• Make learning relevant.
• Give us ownership of our learning.
• Infect us with your enthusiasm about the natural world.
Teaching Students to Be Biologists
Wright described an introductory biology course she has helped to develop that encapsulates many of these principles. In the course, students are expected to have read from the textbook and from other resources, and they have a quiz at the beginning of the week that covers that content. Their job in the class is to apply their knowledge, learn how to analyze information, look at data, create new things, and evaluate possible solutions.
Students do not sit in rows. They are in teams at round tables equipped with computers and Internet access. They have to be responsible to and teach each other. By standing in the middle of the room and looking around, the instructor can see how students are doing. “My job now is not the source of all knowledge. It’s the coach. I look at my students as collaborators, as emerging colleagues. And they haven’t disappointed me once. It’s remarkable.”
Students take tests first by themselves. They then retake the test in their teams for additional credit. The class average on the test might be 70 percent, said Wright, but it is 95 percent when they take the test as a team. “It’s more effective for them to discuss the answers than for us to explain it, in most cases.”
During class, students work together on specific problems, such as investigating the structure and function of a molecule. For a take-home exam or paper, they might recommend a strategy to develop a new antibiotic for extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis, or identify a problem of social value and solve that problem using genes. “We are helping them figure out what it’s like to think like a biologist,” said Wright. “What are the problems biologists wrestle with? What are the resources? What are the limitations?”
Undergraduates have tremendous abilities, said Wright. “They will go to places that are remarkable. If you ever get depressed about all the work ahead of us, all you have to do is think about your students. I’m optimistic about the future.”
THE COGNITIVE SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE BASE
Cognitive science research helps to explain why the classes described by Wright work so well, said Lorrie A. Shepard, dean of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Active learning does more than keep students awake. Deeper cognitive processes are in play.
A 2002 NRC report contained a list of factors associated with learning:
• Learning with understanding is facilitated when new and existing knowledge is structured around major concepts and principles of the discipline.
• Learners use what they already know to construct new understandings.
• Metacognitive strategies and self-regulatory abilities facilitate learning.
• Learners’ motivation to learn and sense of self affect what is learned.
• Participation in social practice is a fundamental form of learning.4
Lorrie Shepard: “By engaging students in explaining their reasoning and solving problems collectively, they come away with much higher levels of learning.”
Shepard particularly emphasized the last item on this list. People learn language, gestures, interpersonal behaviors, manners, and tastes through interactions with adults and peers. But educators traditionally have had a behavioristic idea of how learning occurs. They advocated memorization first followed by figuring out how to apply that knowledge. Assessments therefore focused on memorization.
Shepard asserted that a fundamental change is needed in how people think about learning. Knowledge makes sense when it is learned in context. Then learners can absorb that knowledge, remember it, and connect it to something they already know. From this perspective, learners need opportunities to interact, explain their reasoning, and use evidence as part of that process.
The National Science Education Standards, which were released in 1996, made this point. But engagement has not been practiced in enough classrooms on a regular basis to become normative, Shepard said. “Scaling up or making these things understood to be common practice is the most difficult task.”
Changes in assessments are one of the most effective ways to change teaching, she said. In its 1993 report Measuring Up: Prototypes for Mathematics Assessment, the Mathematical Sciences Education Board of the National Research Council listed some of the qualities of mathematical tasks that should be embedded in assessments:
• Promote higher order thinking.
• Draw connections within math, to other subjects, and to life outside of school.
• Emphasize the importance of communicating results.
• Allow for multiple solution strategies.
4 National Research Council. 2002. Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
The success of the mathematics community in improving both instruction and assessments may be a significant reason behind the gradually improving scores of U.S. students on mathematics tests in recent decades, Shepard observed.
The Colorado Learning Assistant Model
Shepard described the Colorado Learning Assistant Model, which embodies the principles she discussed.5 In this model, outstanding undergraduate students are hired as learning assistants and are given an education course on learning research. The professor lectures twice per week and meets with graduate students and the learning assistants once a week. Instead of “recitations” with graduate students working problems, the learning assistants and graduate students lead “learning teams.” Through this process, students are engaged in talking through their reasoning about how to solve problems.
This arrangement creates the kind of interactive environment that is conducive to learning, said Shepard. “By engaging students in explaining their reasoning and solving problems collectively, they come away with much higher levels of learning.” Tests of content knowledge show substantial gains in learning after the learning assistant model was instituted. Furthermore, the learning assistants show even greater gains in their mastery of the content—“far above what has been achieved in other contexts.” Finally, the learning assistant model also has contributed to a significant increase in the number of undergraduates who are interested in becoming STEM teachers, said Shepard.
The University of Colorado, with support from the American Physical Society, is running workshops across the United States for people who are interested in implementing the learning assistant model. Faculty members need to get over an initial hurdle in learning to use this model. But the success and enthusiasm of the students who benefit from it provide a compelling argument for change.