This week I’m reading… Changing STEM education

Summer is a great time for Good Intentions and Forward Planning… with that in mind I’ve been reading about what way we teach chemistry, how we know it’s not the best approach, and what might be done to change it.

Is changing the curriculum enough?

Bodner (1992) opens his discussion on reform in chemistry education writes that “recent concern”, way back in 1992, is not unique. He states that there are repeated cycles of concern about science education over the 20th century, followed by long periods of complacency. Scientists and educators usually respond in three ways:

  1. restructure the curriculum,
  2. attract more young people to science,
  3. try to change science teaching at primary and secondary level.

However, Bodner proposes that the problem is not in attracting people to science at the early stages, but keeping them on when they reach university, and that we at third level have much to learn with from our colleagues in primary and secondary level. Instead of changing the curriculum (the topics taught), his focus is on changing the way the curriculum is taught. In an era when textbooks (and one presumes now, the internet) have all the information one wants, the information dissemination component of a lecture is redundant. Bodner makes a case that students can perform quite well on a question involving equilibrium without understanding its relationship to other concepts taught in the same course, instead advocating an active learning classroom centred around discussion and explanation; dialogue between lecturers and student. He even offers a PhD thesis to back up his argument (A paper, with a great title, derived from this is here: PDF).

Are we there yet?

One of the frustrations I’m sure many who have been around the block a few times feel is the pace of change is so slow (read: glacial). 18 years after Bodner’s paper, Talanquer and Pollard (2010) criticize the chemistry curriculum at universities as “fact-based and encyclopedic, built upon a collection of isolated topics… detached from the practices, ways of thinking, and applications of both chemistry research and chemistry education research in the 21st century.” Their paper in CERP presents an argument for teaching “how we think instead of what we know”.

They describe their Chemistry XXI curriculum, which presents an introductory chemistry curriculum in eight units, each titled by a question. For example, Unit 1 is “How do we distinguish substances?”, consisting of four modules (1 to 2 weeks of work): “searching for differences, modelling matter, comparing masses, determining composition.” The chemical concepts mapping onto these include the particulate model of matter, mole and molar mass, and elemental composition.

Talanquer CERP 2010 imageAssessment of this approach is by a variety of means, including small group in-class activities. An example is provided for a component on physical and electronic properties of metals and non-metals; students are asked to design an LED, justifying their choices. I think this fits nicely into the discursive ideas Bodner mentions. Summative assessment is based on answering questions in a context-based scenario – picture shown.

In what is a very valuable addition to this discussion, learning progression levels are included, allowing student understanding of concepts and ideas, so that their progressive development can be monitored. It’s a paper that’s worth serious consideration and deserves more widespread awareness.

Keep on Truckin’

Finally in our trio is Martin Goedhart’s chapter in the recently published book Chemistry Education. Echoing the basis provided by Talanquer and Pollard, he argues that the traditional disciplines of analytical, organic, inorganic, physical, and biochemistry were reflective of what chemists were doing in research and practice. However, the interdisciplinary nature of our subject demands new divisions; Goedhart proposes three competency areas synthesis, analysis, and modelling. For example in analysis, the overall aim is “acquiring information about the composition and structure of substances and mixtures”. The key competencies are “sampling, using instruments, data interpretation”, with knowledge areas including instruments, methods and techniques, sample prep, etc. As an example of how the approach differs, he states that students should be able to select appropriate techniques for their analysis; our current emphasis is on the catalogue of facts on how each technique works. I think this echoes Talanquer’s point about shifting the emphasis on from what we know to how we think.

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