“Hands-on” science in college is a big idea whose time has come

In their report Closing the Talent Gap, the Florida Council of 100 and the Florida Chamber of Commerce say that there will be an economy-strangling shortage of 100,000 science and technology professionals in Florida by 2015.  Part of the “New Florida Initiative” being pushed by State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan is intended to address this critical issue.

Florida’s universities will not succeed in closing this enormous gap by continuing to do the same things they have been doing for decades.  Instead, they need to make science and engineering careers accessible to a broader range of students by offering learning opportunities built on the foundation of research-based “hands-on” and “minds-on” curricula and pedagogies.

In many of the science and engineering disciplines, advanced undergraduates are taught in highly interactive learning environments where discussions among students, one-on-one interactions with professors, and hands-on experiences with advanced technologies are the norm.  However, general science courses for beginning science and engineering majors are often taught in traditional large lecture halls without the benefit of many of the interactive experiences that are crucial to learning.  As a result, some students who might succeed in a progressive learning environment end up dropping out of the science and engineering pipeline.

At Florida State University, several strategies have been brought to bear on the challenge of making success in introductory science classes possible for more students.  In some large lecture classes, students are using “personal response systems” that look like TV remote controls to interact with professor-lecturers in real time.  Some biology courses are taking advantages of a pedagogical technique called “Argument-Driven Inquiry” (ADI), which is being championed by FSU science education faculty.

But the crown jewel of FSU’s reform effort in introductory science is the studio physics program, in which science and engineering majors integrate laboratory, lecture and problem-solving discussions into unified classroom experiences that feature constant interactions with teaching staff and other students, enabled by a specially designed classroom architecture and powerful technology.  Interactive classrooms like FSU’s physics studios have been shown to double the learning students usually achieve in a non-interactive lecture classroom.  The studio physics program presently serves about 200 students each semester in the campus’ two specialized science studio rooms.

In addition to being outstanding learning environments for all science and engineering majors, the studio physics courses are making an important contribution in the effort to increase the number of bachelor’s degree graduates in physics, who are the most economically versatile products of the state’s university system.  Physics majors who build relationships among themselves in the highly interactive studio environment are more likely to successfully navigate the rigors of the physics degree program than those who work in isolation.  Moreover, the studio physics classes provide a critical element in the education of math and science teachers who are ready to introduce hands-on inquiry in their own middle and high school classrooms.  Teachers tend to teach the way they were taught, so future science teachers should learn their science in inquiry-driven environments like those offered in FSU’s studio physics courses.

Not all students are comfortable in an inquiry-driven science classroom, so there will always be a need for lecture courses.  But in a time of economic crisis, making science and engineering careers accessible to more students – and boosting the training of teachers for our middle and high schools – should be among the highest priorities of our state’s universities.

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One Response to “Hands-on” science in college is a big idea whose time has come

  1. DSW says:

    After more than a decade of squabbling about teacher preparedness, I’m glad to read that FSU is doing something different. After all, doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

    Does the pilot program include some type of follow up to determine the % of students who are retained and graduate in physics?

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