The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

STEM departments innovate courses with active learning


On chemistry professor Thomas Freeman’s bookshelf, a row of DNA models are on display. The colorful models, made from pipe cleaners, beads and wood, were created by students in Freeman’s honors biochemistry class. 

It’s an example of how science, technology, engineering and mathematics education is changing at UNC. 

“Don’t tell the class, but this one is my favorite,” Freeman said, jokingly, as he pulled a yellow, red and blue-striped model off the shelf. 

Professors across four departments — biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy and mathematics are moving away from traditional lecture-style classes and placing more accountability on the students through active-learning teaching mechanisms. 

“’Flipped' classroom is not an inappropriate word for it,” said Kelly Hogan, biology professor and assistant dean of instructional innovation in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. “We call it high structure active learning, but it’s a form of the ‘flipped’ classroom.”

Hogan said active learning encompasses a before, during and after component of a class. She said before class, students are responsible for either reading, answering questions, watching a video or posting on a discussion board. 

During class is when students work through more complicated problems, and after class students complete a required assignment, such as a routine quiz or homework sets. 

“You’re thinking about ‘OK the student learned the material on their own before class; they’re going to have a lot of questions. They can only take in so much,’” Hogan said. “You work through in a more rigorous way during the class." 

After practicing in class, Hogan said students will be ready for a more comprehensive quiz or homework. 

"You've had this false assumption sometimes that you know it really well because you have a really gifted lecturer," she said. "You've read over your notes. You feel comfortable with it. But you can't solve a problem because you didn't practice solving any of those problems."

In 2013, UNC was named one of eight universities to take part in Association of American Universities’ five-year initiative to improve undergraduate STEM education. But the enhancement of STEM courses began more than ten years ago with the redesign of the introductory physics course. 

Physics and astronomy professor Laurie McNeil led the physics introductory courses' transition away from traditional lecture-lab style to a lecture-studio style, where students spend two hours working in small groups on structured activities. She said the introductory courses are not meant to "weed out" students planning to study science. 

“We’re not pulling weeds,” she said. “We’re cultivating flowers. Our fondest hope would be that everybody not only passes, but gets a really good grade because that means they’ve succeeded in learning what we want them to learn.” 

Since the big change, the four STEM departments are now seeing more and more benefits. 

“We’re seeing 13 percent higher learning gains, and that is across all the departments,” Hogan said. “Some are 50 percent in some classes, and some are lower, but if we look across all the classes, where we are right now, it’s 13. I suspect we can take that number higher.” 

Hogan said in certain classes, faculty have looked more deeply at demographics. She said they know active learning has helped all students, but it has helped certain student groups even more. 

“The achievement gap disappeared for first-generation students and decreased by half for black students,” Hogan said. “We’re seeing big gains in places where we’ve looked, such as women in some certain fields, minority students in certain fields.”

Freeman, the executive director of the Chancellor's Science Scholars Program, said over the last five years, there has been consistent increases in the number of chemistry majors since the changes to STEM education. He said the department has about 700 majors now. 

“People are staying with the major longer than they had been before,” he said. “Our student population is looking more and more diverse in the chemistry department. We see that in our classes and in the upper-level classes. Now, we haven’t quantified this in any way, just anecdotally, that’s what we’re seeing.” 

Hogan said the transition to active learning would not have been possible without faculty collaboration. She said 45 STEM faculty members worked across the departments to mentor one another on active learning. 

“All the faculty are collaborating and making it happen together,” she said. “When we say ‘you took Bio 202 in this fall semester,’ anybody in the department knows what that means because we’re sharing all this material. We know what their grade approximately means in terms of their level of mastery.” 

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Students taking the STEM classes have noticed changes, too. 

“You’re almost being pushed in a direction of learning more,” junior Becky Chen, biology major, said. “When you have guided reading questions and quizzes before you go to the lecture, you actually have a baseline knowledge of what you’re about to learn. Then, when you’re in there, you’re just building on what you already know.” 

But Chen said she doesn’t think active learning makes the classes easier. 

“Sometimes what they teach in class would be different than what’s on the exam,” she said. “They might teach you material, but the way they phrase the question on the exam would be harder than just pure information that’s given to you. They aren’t going to ask me what the function of something is. They’re going to ask me what happens if that function is altered. It’s always taking that next step.” 

Junior Mitchell Casey, exercise and sport science major, said with active learning, accountability of the student is emphasized. 

“If you don’t come to lecture prepared, you’re going to be lost and the teacher isn’t going to spend time in lecture to help one student or a fraction of the class that didn’t come prepared,” he said. “It makes you responsible for coming prepared and knowing the material for that day rather than learning something new in lecture.” 

Physics professor McNeil said there is no comparison between how STEM courses were taught in the past and how the classes are taught now. 

“We certainly won’t go back to a traditional teaching method because we know that doesn’t work,” she said. “But will we come up with new and improved ways to use active learning in the class? Well sure; we can always do better.”