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September 14, 2017

Fresh Ideas to Improve Teaching, Learning in Natural Sciences Awarded Funding

Using 3-D technology to take part virtually in experiments, blasting stereotypes for female science students, and conducting a multi-year urban forest study — these are just a few of the projects given funding recently by Pitt’s discipline-based Science Education Research Center (dB-SERC) as recipients of its Course Transformation Awards.

Ten natural-science faculty members in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences were chosen for the annual awards, which support projects to improve classroom teaching and learning strategies.

“Those who are awarded dB-SERC Course Transformation Awards discuss their projects in faculty learning communities,” said Chandralekha Singh, center director and faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Such interactions, she said, “prompt faculty in other natural sciences departments to reflect on ways in which they can improve teaching and learning in their own courses.

“The students benefit,” she added, including “improvement in problem solving and reasoning skills and attitudes about the course. Overall, the awards increase the excitement about teaching and learning for both students and faculty members while improving learning outcomes.”

The projects chosen for funding this year are:

Developing and Testing a Classroom-Based Social-Belonging Intervention to Address the Effects of Stereotype Threat on Female Physics Students

Kevin R. Binning, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, will use a classroom-based small-group social-belonging intervention to address the stereotypes and concerns female students may have in classrooms for physical scientists and engineers. Binning’s project has the potential to improve the immediate and long-term outcomes for female physics students, and the results may lead to the widespread adoption of social-belonging interventions in college STEM classrooms to address current and historical gender disparities.

Engaging Student Scientists to Enhance Understanding of Forest Degradation and Promote Inquiry-Based Scientific Skills

Students in the ecology laboratory classroom of Walter P. Carson, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, will visit an urban forest and test hypotheses about habitat degradation as the beginning of an annual data compilation project, which includes a field trip to an urban forest (Eden Hall Campus of Chatham University). Over time, Carson’s student scientists will be able to evaluate multiple hypotheses that hone in on the causes of forest change.

Creating an Undergraduate Course for Principles of Data Science

Sungkyu Jung, associate professor in the Department of Statistics, will develop a new course, Principles of Data Science, that teaches “thinking with data,” including data acquisition, data clean-up, data exploration and visualization, modeling and inference and professional reporting. Jung’s project is designed to meet the needs of undergraduate students for proper data science training, and to provide them with a principled introduction to data science that properly combines inferential thinking and computational thinking.

Repeating Students in Biology 1

This project by Nancy Kaufmann, assistant director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biological Sciences, aims to reduce the number of students struggling with the department’s introductory biology course by designing support systems and interventions to help these students be successful. Kaufmann’s project includes developing an intervention in which repeating students read about successful paths of others who have had to repeat the course, and working with students to develop strategies for success in the course.

Learning with Hierarchical Templates

Kirill Kiselyov, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, will create new maps of information (fillable hierarchical templates) for his cell biology course as a learning aid for its many advanced concepts and complex tasks. Kiselyov’s project is expected to help students organize and understand complex information and will serve as an assessment tool, or a “map,” of students’ learning and difficulties.

Transforming Math Education for Chemists

Daniel Lambrecht, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, intends to improve mathematics education for chemistry majors by developing guided inquiry learning activities around chemistry-specific applications of math. Lambrecht expects that the course transformation will enhance learning outcomes by providing a more engaging environment and will serve students well in their upper division courses, in research and at the workplace.

An Interdisciplinary Data Science Design for Undergraduate Students

Lucas Mentch, assistant professor in the Department of Statistics, is developing a new course, Statistical Learning and Data Science, to modernize the statistics department curriculum, covering current methods in statistics, data science and machine learning while fostering the development of practical programming skills. New course materials will provide both student and instructor feedback concerning course comprehension, and the skills and methods taught in the course will be directly transferrable to industry positions.

Expanding the Physics Exploration Center with Virtual Experiments

The goal of this project by David Nero, lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is to create a virtual lab at the Physics Exploration Center, where students work with hands-on physics experiments at their own pace, so that they can use 360-degree 3-D video to experience other students’ experiments and then conduct their own data analysis. These experiments are designed to lead students to a stronger conceptual understanding of physics by challenging their preconceptions of the physical world, and Nero hopes that the new virtual experiments will improve student attitudes about physics and learning.

Relevant and Inquiry-based Laboratory Experiences for the Honors General Chemistry Curriculum

Eugene Wagner, senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, will give the Honors General Chemistry course’s weekly laboratory component a boost by allowing students to design experiments and test their own hypotheses, working with partners to foster discussion and collaboration. Wagner’s project, which includes adapting and revising eight experiments in the course curriculum, can serve as the beginning of a leap forward in the general chemistry laboratory program.

Incorporating Cooperative Learning Activities into Introduction to Environmental Science

The Introduction to Environmental Science course of Kyle Ann Whittinghill, lecturer and undergraduate advisor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science, will be transformed with new cooperative learning activities tied to course content learning goals, which will replace one of the two traditional lectures each week. Whittinghill’s project is aimed at improving student understanding and retention of course content and increasing student engagement in lecture and recitation, as well as standardizing instruction across different teaching assistants.


Marty Levine,, 412-758-4859


Filed under: Feature,Volume 50 Issue 2

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