When Alex Anderson enrolled at Washington University, his future seemed all but sealed. Through hard work and a natural aptitude, he earned A’s in his high school math and sciences courses and scored near the 99th percentile on his SAT exam. For the thrill of the challenge, he spent his spare time solving math-competition-type problems and reading math books. He was just the sort of recruit that science departments hope to pull into their ranks and develop into a future scientist.
Anderson, however, felt a bit uneasy about it all. “I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. He wanted to work in math, physics, biology or computer science, but didn’t have a clear sense of the possibilities. Further, the idea of a career in science seemed intimidating. “I was worried that I would not be able to do research,” he says. “I was worried that I was just not capable of creating new ideas.”
Even when students like Anderson arrive brimming with enthusiasm for science, it can be a tough start.
The first two years are a critical test for both students and departments in the process of producing future scientists. “Freshman year is the time when you win or lose a science major,” says Sarah C. R. Elgin, the Viktor Hamburger Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences. The goal for both: students succeeding in their chosen field of study.
During the first two years, science students decide whether or not continuing in their major is worth the hard work. Majors in the natural sciences are required to take a slew of introductory courses outside their discipline as freshmen and sophomores. General Chemistry and Physics I, for example, are required by 13 different majors, including earth and planetary sciences, environmental biology and computer science.
Fundamentals of Biology is required by five majors. Until they understand why establishing that breadth is necessary and have the opportunity to integrate it in a meaningful project, Elgin says, the schedule “can be a bit of a slog.”
The importance of these introductory courses is heightened because they provide the foundation for the remainder of the student’s learning. “Science is so sequential; you have to hit the ground running,” Elgin says. Concepts covered in the introductory biology and chemistry courses, for example, must be mastered before a student can fully understand the biochemistry course, like building a foundation and first floor before beginning the second. “It’s very hard to be the Comeback Kid as a science major.”
For those reasons, it’s not surprising that the No. 2 reason students who had planned to major in biology, chemistry or physics changed their major to something outside the natural sciences altogether was that “the introductory courses turned me off the subject,” according to a 2007 survey of students at WUSTL and its peer institutions. (The No. 1 reason was that they simply found another major that interested them more.) It’s a bigger problem than merely a diminished number of students in these disciplines, says Kathryn Miller, professor and chair of biology. “We lose women and under-represented minorities in greater proportion,” she says. “But with more diverse perspectives, you have better solutions.”
And for those same reasons, A&S science departments are continually finding ways to help their students succeed in these introductory courses. “We want students to see science as we do: as an exciting process of discovery, creativity and collaboration,” says Gina Frey, director of the Teaching Center and professor of the practice in the chemistry department. “The challenge is to get students excited about science as a process – not as a set of facts – and to develop programs and courses that can sustain that excitement.”
There has been something of a national panic about students excelling in the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). For 20 years, the media has been reporting on the decline of the American competitive advantage.
The most recent benchmarking exercise from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reveals only a middling ranking for 15-year-olds in the United States on international science tests. At the university level, the problem isn’t performance but quantity: according to a report published by the National Science Board, American students earned only 11 percent of the world’s 4 million undergraduate (or equivalent) science and engineering degrees in 2006, compared with 21 percent in China and 19 percent in the European Union. Only about a third of American students pursue bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, compared with 63 percent in Japan and 53 percent in China. (At WUSTL, just under 30 percent earn degrees in science or engineering fields.)
And any shortage of new scientists affects the national economy. Science and engineering sectors are powerful engines of prosperity, responsible for more than 50 percent of our sustained economic expansion, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But only 5 percent of American workers are employed in those fields.
Correcting this trend means retaining science students through the freshman and sophomore years and giving them a boost to continue on to graduation and beyond. Arts & Sciences faculty have devised a number of approaches – some aimed at students predicted to be class leaders, some aimed at students who might struggle with the curriculum – to do just that.
Start Before They Start
The first step toward solving this problem begins on the first day of freshman year – or, for many newly admitted students at WUSTL, even a few months before.
Students interested in biology or biomedical engineering are invited to compete for a spot in the Summer Scholars in Biology and Biomedical Sciences program, which brings 20 incoming WUSTL freshmen to campus the summer before their first semester. During their sevenweek stay, the not-quite-freshmen learn basic research skills and then apply them, with the help of a mentor, to a variety of research problems in biology, bioengineering and biomedicine. The objective is to help them transition to active learning (a model of instruction that emphasizes the learner’s responsibility for his or her learning) by engaging them in research even before they begin their freshman year.
In the chemistry department, incoming students signed up for the introductory course are required to take an online diagnostic exam, developed by Frey, that helps determine the type of support they will need to succeed when the semester kicks off in August. Course instructors and advisers use the results to recommend which of the myriad support programs are appropriate. So, a student with a high degree of proficiency might be advised to participate in the department’s highly successful peer-led team-learning (PLTL) groups, while a less prepared student would be encouraged to sign up for smaller peermentoring groups, in addition to participating in PLTL. All students attend lectures and recitation sessions. With nearly 800 students in three sections of General Chemistry, it’s enormously helpful to both student and instructor to have this strategy worked out even before the first lecture begins – and long before trouble arises. The upshot is that students in this class, once feared as the hardest on campus, are now succeeding, with up to 75 percent of them earning A’s or B’s.
Require Them to Learn, Not Just Memorize
New undergraduates are often shocked by the expectations of college-level academics, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in the sciences. “A college-level chemistry course is very different than anything first-year students have taken in high school, even if they’ve taken AP Chemistry,” says Bill Buhro, the George E. Pake Professor and chair of the chemistry department. “It’s about understanding concepts and problemsolving, not memorization. We teach them to look at a problem upside-down, inside-out and backward.” Whether or not a student can make this conceptual leap in chemistry class is a strong predictor of his or her ability to do so in any class. Buhro adds, “Dean McLeod used to say, ‘As goes Chem 111, so goes freshman year.’”
To help students bridge the divide, Frey is again working on a new test that will provide insight into the learning strategies of introductory chemistry students. Mark McDaniel, director of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning and Education (CIRCLE) and professor of psychology, has developed a test that divides test-takers into two categories: those who learn by rote memorization and those who learn by applying theory. Frey and McDaniel are piloting this test in the classroom with WUSTL introductory-chemistry students, as well as with introductory-chemistry students at six other institutions. Frey, who is also associate director of CIRCLE, says that the theory-based learners – who constituted just over half of their first group of test subjects – learn the material more deeply and statistically do better on the introductory-chemistry tests than do the rote learners. Eventually, they hope their research, underwritten by the Luce Foundation, will result in a clear-cut way to identify rote learners and then help them make the leap to learning by concept. “This could be a big step forward for lower-level STEM education,” Frey says.
Demystify the Career of a Scientist
The biology department takes a dessert-first approach to science education with Phage Hunters, a genomics course that comprises a year-long research experience investigating phages, a type of virus that infects bacteria. In 2008 WUSTL became one of the first in the country to offer the course, which is funded by the Science Education Alliance at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The timing of the course – offered only in the freshman year – is important because it reaches students who might otherwise be turned off by the long march through the introductory courses. “It gives them a chance to get their hands in the goo right away,” Elgin says. To meet demand, the department now offers two sections of the course.
Students spend the first semester engrossed in so-called wet bench work, learning the lab techniques involved in collecting, purifying and isolating the phage. Over winter break, the Washington University Genome Institute sequences the genomes of the class’s phages. In the spring, students engage in the bioinformatics portion of the course. They meet in a computer lab to learn the tools necessary for genomic analysis, which allows them to identify individual phage genes and try to determine their functions (a process called annotation). Because phages are so numerous and evolve so quickly, nearly all are novel, which adds to the students’ excitement. Their results are added to the work of students participating in the program at other universities, building a database available to scientists around the world. “It’s a new experience for the kids,” Elgin says. “It involves work, aside from the learning experience.”
The data are truly important science. The host for the phage viruses is a strain of bacterium related to TB and leprosy, though the one used in the lab is nonpathogenic. Scientists are interested in understanding the viruses that can kill that bacterium because they may be useful as vectors or in medical research. Recently, 12 students from the first Phage Hunters course contributed to a research paper published in PLoS ONE, the peer-reviewed online journal of the Public Library of Science.
Beginning in spring 2012, the biology department will bring a taste of this research experience to a select group enrolled in its introductory course, Fundamentals of Biology. About 120 of the course’s 600 students will take a lab that condenses the bioinformatics portion of the Phage Hunters course, giving them the opportunity to learn the computer skills and annotate one of the their own phages isolated by fellow students. The plan is to refine the lab and then offer it again to all introductory bio students in spring 2013, giving even more students the chance to do real scientific research as part of their regular class schedule. “The nature of science is driven by active participation,” Miller says. “Teaching in a passive way doesn’t take advantage of the nature of science.”
Embrace New Ways of Teaching
Introductory physics is another course required in a dozen majors; each year, more than 700 students are signed up. The vast majority, up to 90 percent, are pre-med or engineering students who won’t continue in physics past the introductory level. This is the only shot they have to pick up the physics they’ll need down the line. “For science majors, physics is critically important,” says Ken Kelton, the Arthur Holly Compton Professor and chair of physics. “The concepts we teach underlie the things they end up doing in their careers. It’s the foundation that underlies the physical world.”
Most introductory physics courses in the United States follow a standard sequential, lecture-heavy model that’s been employed since the 1950s and covers some topics in a way that is essentially unchanged since the late nineteenth century. “Some students love this model,” Kelton says, “and others need a different paradigm.”
In 2004, physics professor Tom Bernatowicz brought a new way of teaching to campus, a course called Six Ideas That Shaped Physics, and offered it as a section of Physics I. The goal was to create a deeper level of understanding, not an easier course. The new model organizes the semester around central concepts – conservation laws, Newtonian physics, special relativity, electromagnetism, quantum physics and statistical/ thermal physics – instead of chronology. This allows for in-depth explorations of the ideas across time.
Bernatowicz scrapped the traditional lecture format, too. Six Ideas students are required to actively prepare for class by completing readings and working homework problems based on those readings. In a typical class , they hear one or more 10-minute lectures over the material, talk about two-minute problems in groups and discuss their answers. Often there is a demonstration that illustrates the material. At last, they go home and rework the original set of homework problems. The multiple passes over the material, in different and novel ways, create learning that sticks.
Students immediately responded to the new format; they were clamoring to get in. In 2004, there was one Six Ideas section of 62 students and four traditionally taught sections. This year, there were five Six Ideas sections of 120 students each and only one section of traditional physics – which means that the department actually increased the total number of physics sections taught. “This is overwhelmingly due to the increased student interest in the active-learning style of freshman physics,” Kelton says.
Assessment tests demonstrate that Six Ideas students learn and, importantly, retain the course material better than their traditional-lecturecourse counterparts, especially women and pre-med students. “There’s a striking difference,” Kelton says. “They retain more and have a better attitude about physics.”
Keeping freshmen and sophomores interested in the sciences isn’t a matter of smoothing the path for them. A 2011 survey of WUSTL students shows that biology, chemistry and physics majors ranked “ease of coursework” as last in importance among the factors in choosing their first or second major. Instead, hanging on to them requires “some kind of motivating experience to keep them going,” Elgin says.
For Alex Anderson, who graduates in May with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics, that seminal experience was the Phage Hunters course. “Phage Hunters was one of my best classes at Wash. U.,” he says. “It was really cool to get engaged in research and to interact with professors in a small setting. . . . It gave me more confidence in my ability to contribute to the scientific community.” He went on to win a prestigious Goldwater scholarship and to conduct published research with physics professor Carl Bender. His enthusiasm for science nurtured and expanded, he plans to pursue a doctoral degree in theoretical physics.
In the end, perhaps the most important things first- and second-year science students learn are persistence, the ability to apply concepts and the confidence to ask their own questions – just like a scientist.
by Kathleen Fields