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January 23, 2014

Evidence-based science teaching center opens

A lecture by Nobel Prize laureate Carl Wieman will herald the establishment of a new Discipline-based Science Education Research Center (dB-SERC) in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. The talk, “Taking a Scientific Approach to Science Education,” is set for 3 p.m. Jan. 30 in the University Club’s ballroom B.

Wieman, whose work on the Bose-Einstein condensate won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, more recently has focused on improving science education. He also will be the keynote speaker Jan. 31 at Pitt’s 2014 assessment conference, which will be held at the University Club.

dB-SERC’s stated vision is to “promote and support evidence-based teaching and learning and innovative active engagement techniques in the natural sciences for both majors and non-majors, so that Pitt is positioned to be a national leader in research-based instruction in the natural sciences.”

The center will help develop faculty learning communities, fund sustainable course-reform proposals, provide training for graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants and host an annual conference to showcase faculty and TA efforts.

Chandralekha Singh

Chandralekha Singh

“Our job is a support role,” said dB-SERC director Chandralekha Singh, a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Singh expects to be joined by a full-time post-doctoral teacher/scholar who will help faculty develop measurable goals and assessment strategies. The center will be strongly web-based, making use of meeting spaces in physics and across other natural sciences departments.

While the center’s work will evolve over time based on departments’ needs, faculty support is dB-SERC’s goal: “To help people who want to help themselves and to help departments that want to help themselves and improve their teaching and learning,” Singh said.

The center has been established through the support of Provost Patricia E. Beeson, who Singh said is very interested in evidence-based teaching and learning. dB-SERC will interact closely — as a sort of “sister center,” Singh said — with the Swanson School of Engineering’s Engineering Education Research Center. The EERC, led by industrial engineering faculty member Mary Besterfield-Sacre, was established in 2011.

Dietrich school leaders say they hope to develop similar initiatives to serve departments in the humanities and social sciences.


The study of teaching and learning science only recently has become a subject of research, said Singh, whose own research focuses on identifying teaching strategies that reduce students’ difficulties in learning physics.

Teaching, in itself, is a science, and in some ways is similar to medical science, she argues. “Not everyone will react to a drug in the exact same way, but at the same time, you know what’s good medicine versus bad medicine,” she said.

“People for the longest time have believed that either you can, or you can’t, teach. It’s all about the performance.” Classroom charisma undeniably plays a role, but “anybody can become a good teacher and anybody can help students learn better if they think about the teaching and learning process and how cognition is playing a role,” she said.

“Evidence-based teaching and learning is really important. Many times we think we are doing a great job of teaching and helping our students learn, but when you actually evaluate what students actually learned, you find that students are not learning as much as they should,” she said.

Course goals, instructional design and assessment tools all must align with each other. “By ‘evidence-based teaching and learning’ we mean teaching and learning in which you really have measurable goals and you’re using some assessment tools to actually see whether your goals have been achieved or not,” said Singh.

Assessments might be content-based, measuring students’ skills: “Do they have problem-solving skills? Do they have reasoning skills? Do they have mathematical skills? Are they independent learners? Are they critical thinkers?”

Assessments also could be related to students’ epistemological beliefs about science learning, Singh said. In designing courses, faculty need to consider what misperceptions students who are new to the subject might have. “They might think that science is just a collection of facts and formulas — and that’s not really true because there is a well-organized knowledge hierarchy in the science disciplines.” Or students may think that their job is to take notes and regurgitate facts rather than to structure and apply their own knowledge. “They might not realize that science is all about real-life situations. We’re really thinking about how you might apply some principles to actual situations,” she said.

“These things might not come across unless we explicitly think about it.”

Singh said one important facet of dB-SERC’s work will focus on keeping students engaged in the large introductory courses found in departments such as physics, chemistry, biology and math.

“Those courses are critical for retaining students in the sciences. If they drop out there because we are not doing a good job of engaging them or helping them learn or organize knowledge, since sciences are very hierarchical, students later will be completely lost. So it’s very important to help students in those courses.

“There’s enough evidence to suggest that if you help students do well in those courses, you might even have students go on to do a science major.”  Non-majors likewise will benefit from the skills they develop in such classes, she said. “We need scientifically literate people.”


The “discipline-based” aspect of the center’s work is important, Singh said. “Even though we aren’t disciplinary experts, we can help (faculty) with things related to goals and assessment efforts,” she said.

“My discipline is physics, but I don’t know biology or chemistry or computer science,” she said, stressing that the faculty must take the lead in applying the principles to their own disciplines.

“Our job would be to help faculty members think about aligning goals with instruction and with assessment tools in order to make sure students are learning and that we have evidence for how much a particular strategy is helping students.”

Faculty learning communities

Faculty learning communities will include journal club-type groups that look at existing research. They also will connect faculty who share an interest in a particular technique, such as collaborative learning, she said. “This would be a close-knit group based in the sciences, and based on interest in doing this,” she said.

Course reform funding

With support from the provost, dB-SERC will solicit proposals from faculty who want to reform their courses. In developing proposals, Singh said, “We are hoping that each department internally will reflect upon what their strengths are, what they want to do better and what strategies would help.”

Preference will be given to proposals that are sustainable and scalable, with costs that are short-term, she said.

“We are interested in those kinds of efforts that do not require extra resources over the long run,” she said. “There is already a lot of evidence to suggest that once something has been perfected those things can be used without a lot of increase in resources.”


With an eye toward fostering long-term benefits for students, Singh also hopes to collaborate on TA training and to host workshops to teach new faculty about evidence-based teaching and learning and interactive learning methods.

Singh noted that young faculty often seek National Science Foundation CAREER awards, which require projects to integrate research and education and include an assessment component. “If faculty think early on about how to integrate research and teaching, they will be able to do well in their CAREER awards and do things that would be good both for their research and teaching,” she said.

Likewise, there is potential for long-term gains in training TAs in these methods. “People who have learned it at a young age will continue to do so when they are teaching in their field,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow