In the Education Life section of today's New York Times, Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard speculates on the future of higher education in an article titled "What you (really) need to know". In particular, he writes about active learning, collaborative learning and how new technologies will change the way we learn. Of course, much of what Summers talks about in the NY times article is not new. In fact, social constructivist approaches to teaching and learning have long been used in the physical sciences. But the fact that we see leaders in academia, like Summers, talk more and more about the need for change makes me hopeful of the future of undergraduate education in the US.
How much do students learn using the traditional lecture approach? Not much, as it turns out. Yet, why do we, STEM faculty, keep using lecture as the primary pedagogical tool? Here's an excellent article by Carl Wieman, a physics Nobel laureate, on the need for faculty to pay more attention to advances in learning research.
One of the major impediments in the widespread implementation of the Organic First curriculum is lack of adequate assessment. In particular, there is legitimate concern whether students in such a curriculum would be cognitively "mature" to tackle organic chemistry without prior exposure to general chemistry. Since it has been two years since we first implemented the Organic First curriculum at UMR, we decided to address this concern by measuring the cognitive abilities of our students. Midterm and final exam questions from two courses; CHEM 1231 (Fall 2009 and Fall 2010) and CHEM 2231 (Spring 2010 and Spring 2011) were classified according to Bloom's taxonomic levels. The percent correct responses in each of the first four categories (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application and Analysis) were then analyzed. We found that while a large majority of the students were capable of answering questions at the knowledge and comprehension levels, a significant number could tackle questions at the application and analysis level. This study was presented at the 242nd national ACS meeting in Denver in August 2011. Here's a copy of the poster. posterACS.pdf
It's no secret that dropout rates in STEM courses are high. A recent article in the New York Times highlights this problem and explores the question of why there are so few science majors. While there are many reasons, a big part of the problem is that introductory science classes are large and often involve traditional lecturing as the primary pedagogical tool. Project-based and student-centered approaches to learning are relatively rare. As someone who teaches organic chemistry, I once thought that student-centered pedagogy would be difficult to implement in class. Having used this approach since fall 2009 in a freshman organic chemistry course, I now wonder what took me so long to give up on lecturing.
Organic Chemistry is a daunting, anxiety -inducing subject for many an ambitious undergraduate. It is a required course for admission into many medical schools. It is traditionally taught in the second year although some freshmen take the course. Here at the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR ) we have joined a handful of other institutions where organic chemistry is taught to first year students. Why on earth would you teach such a daunting subject, which is notorious for being a weed out course, in the first year? We believe that the Organic First curriculum has certain advantages over the traditional general chemistry first curriculum. Here's a link to a useful resource for faculty interested in the organic first curriculum.