Curricular and Pedagogical Changes

The curricular and pedagogical development component of the program has aimed at changing the basic fabric of introductory courses by providing faculty members with a nurturing environment, mentoring, and the intensive development time they need to make such changes. The goals of our curricular and pedagogical changes are to provide challenging, not remedial, problems which engage the students in hands-on investigation and mutual realization of the solutions and to respond to different learning styles. We started with several experiments. We launched a series of one-credit, add-on courses that students could co-enroll in with the standard introductory courses. These one-credit courses provided students with interactive ways of learning material, and provided platforms both for more engaged learning by students who wanted some additional work, and for pedagogical experimentation by faculty. In addition, one faculty member decided to experiment with a variation of the workshop (no lecture) physics approach pioneered by Priscilla Laws, and the entire computer science (CS) faculty decided to transform their introductory courses into a workshop format.

After two to three years, faculty members became convinced that learning improved dramatically as a result of these experiments. As a result, the engaged pedagogies were integrated into the standard courses, and the one-credit courses were abolished. In physics, roughly half the students now opt for the workshop format and half in the more standard lecture-lab approach. The first course in CS is taught entirely in the workshop format, and substantial portions of many other CS courses use active learning approaches. Where many Computer Science departments continue to disallow students working together, thereby discouraging students who value teamwork, our curriculum encourages teamwork. Some chemistry sections are taught entirely in a workshop format and others use many engaged learning techniques, including research-like projects and learning in the context of a social problem (global warming, water quality, etc.). Psychology and mathematics also use a number of engaged learning approaches. In all, these changes promote increased levels of mentoring at all levels for the curriculum.

The introductory biology course is entirely based on a research project. Where many biology departments are struggling to fit more and more material into the introductory course, and only a few have even broached the idea of workshop-style teaching, Grinnell’s Biology Department has decided that the most important learning outcome of the introductory course is to get students to “think like a biologist.” Students in the introductory course read original research papers, design and conduct their own experiments, analyze data, and present results in forms appropriate to the discipline, including posters and research papers.

By participating in science education that is structured in a fashion much more like science is practiced, students are engaged in the practice of science and the relationship with the instructor becomes a mentor-apprentice relationship.

Presentation, March 25, 2011, at the AAC&U and PKAL Network for Academic Renewal Conference:

A Grinnell Science Project presentation: "Comprehensive Changes to STEM Education: Reform to Better Serve the Underserved."

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