UP granted $300,000 for new teaching methods in STEM classrooms

By Natalia Owen | October 31, 2017 9:46am
Photo submission submitted by Stephanie Salomone.

It’s 2:00 p.m. This is your fourth lecture of the day. You try to keep your eyes half-open as the monotonous words of your teacher lull you to sleep. Sound familiar? Hopefully, not for long. As studies increasingly show the ineffectiveness of solely lectures in the classroom, more schools are trying to shift their teaching styles to foster more active learning, including the University of Portland.

UP received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to go toward new teaching methods in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. The grant will fund a three-year project that University of Portland faculty members will lead called “Redesigning Education for Learning through Evidence and Collaborative Teaching” (REFLECT). 

Chair of the Mathematics Department Stephanie Salomone is spearheading the effort, as she said that she and many of her colleagues already prioritize student-focused, active learning, and that they are excited to formalize the work they’ve been doing.

“A team of us went to a conference in Boise, around a year and a half ago, and it was all about changing undergraduate STEM education so that it was more student-focused and more active, less passive,” Chair of the Mathematics Department, Dr. Stephanie Salomone said. 

Here on The Bluff, STEM includes engineering, computer science, math, physics, biology, biochemistry and environmental science. As part of the REFLECT project, faculty will work to integrate previous curricula that have proved to be beneficial to students, such as the flipped classroom. The flipped classroom requires students to complete readings and viewings of lectures at home so they are prepared to work with other students and professors in class on the new material learned at home.

“There is a lot of work that goes into a class like that,” Salomone said. “You have to frontload everything, have lectures ready, and activities ready for students to try at home so they can participate in in-class activities. That’s daunting to get all of that together. So, we want to give instructors and educators space and time to do that as well as support and compensation.”

Photo Submission submitted by Director of Media Relations.
by Cheyenne Perry / The Beacon

Salomone explained that most of the grant money, which was received in July 2017, will be used to fund a workshop for STEM faculty in the summer of 2018. Instructors that opt in will be paid for their time, Salomone explained, due to the sizable time commitment that they are being asked to make.

“We want people to think hard about being excellent teachers and looking to be reflective teachers,” Salomone said. “It’s hard to ask people to do that in the summer when people are doing their disciplinary research without compensating them.”

Students also seem excited about the future shift. Freshman biology major, Kristen Uskovich, recalled her most exciting class in high school involved significant student involvement. 

“For my anatomy class in high school, we visited the community college and viewed surgical demonstrations on cadavers,” Uskovich said. “I have always wanted to go into the field of medicine or at least the sciences, so this was a really great opportunity to get some exposure to what the job would entail.”

However, there are some conflicts that arise specifically with the flipped classroom method of teaching. Emily Holguin, a junior nursing student, is taking a pathophysiology course that utilizes the flipped classroom style. While she said she loved the class structure, there are small issues that Holguin has experienced, particularly with technology that is often required in a flipped classroom setting.

“Sometimes the WiFi will be down or the connection between the projector and iPad will be lost - it can cut into class time and simply be frustrating,” Holguin said. “Our professor always re-records any missed material when this happens though!”

Holguin also said that some students may be tempted to not put as much effort into learning during class since a lot of the learning is done on their own.

“By pure assumption, I would think that people may not like the concept because they may not feel challenged enough,” Holguin said. “In the sense that someone can miss class or not pay attention knowing that they can later watch the recordings.”

Salomone explained that they also want to create a culture of peer observation of teaching, which focuses on evaluations by colleagues, in addition to the student evaluations system that is already in place. The REFLECT project will hopefully formalize the peer evaluation system, according to Salomone.

Salomone said that she hopes participants in the first workshop, or cohort, in May 2018 will plan integration of new curricula over the summer and implement them next fall. There will be a second cohort in 2019. They want to provide support for faculty, while observing what modules and curriculums they may improve upon. 

All of this hard work and preparation will go towards the grant’s main purpose: improving the quality of the education provided at UP, specifically within STEM programs. Salomone said that student engagement in the classroom is a critical component to future pursuit and success in STEM careers, and this grant will help the faculty at UP forster this student involvement.

“If we’re not given a chance to reflect on what we do, then we’re also not given a chance to refine what we do,” Salomone said. “And that’s what we want to do!”

These implementations will hopefully impact other faculty on campus as well as the teaching of other fields of study, not just STEM.

Peter Pappas, an instructor in the school of education at UP, utilizes active learning methods and technology to connect students with the real world instead of simply lecturing them each class. Students in his Methods of Teaching and Learning: Social Studies as well as his Computers and Educational Technology class upload discussions, reflections and projects to a blog, supervised by Pappas.

“All my students’ written assignments are in the blog. A lot of their work is published,” Pappas said. “They realize they’re not just doing an assignment to turn into me. They are doing an assignment to share with the world. It raises the level of accountability. It gives them an opportunity to showcase what they’re doing.”

A larger symposium is planned to take place at the end of the three years on the UP campus. Faculty from the University of Portland as well as other community members will be invited to share their observations and experiences with student-engagement activities and different curriculum approaches. 

“We have big plans and I have a great team, a wonderful team,” Salomone said. “If we can provide some leadership on campus, then we want to. That’s what our plan is: to lead a charge towards really thinking hard about undergraduate STEM education and making it the best it can be.