Awards from dB-SERC helping transform science education


The need to bring different educational methods to different academic subjects has long been clear to Chandralekha Singh, a physics and astronomy professor and director of dB-SERC — the Discipline-Based Science Education Research Center. And studies conducted by her students are now proving the case for gearing courses more to particular student types, she says.

If you rank students based on grade point average in their first semester of college, how will their GPA change by their last semester, Singh wonders. Will they overcome deficits from the previous 18 years of schooling — say, lackluster high school teachers or ingrained beliefs that they just aren’t smart enough? Will students from better backgrounds, or possessing greater confidence, use those factors to excel in college? Can every student learn that succeeding first requires trying and failing, and thus find out how to handle university-level classes?

The answer: none of the above — at least among the engineering majors in intro physics courses who were study subjects for Singh’s students. On average, their GPAs were unchanged after four years.

“I don’t believe it is the students’ fault,” she says, if they do not improve their GPAs across their college careers. “We as faculty in the University should think of it as our responsibility to help these students.”

That’s the impetus behind dB-SERC and the motivation for its course transformation awards. Since db-SERC’s founding in 2013, it has funded as many as 10 awards annually — up to $10,000 — to natural sciences faculty members in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Changing lectures and recitation sections

Two-time awardee Kyle Whittinghill, a lecturer in geology and environmental science, used a 2017 award to reshape her Introduction to Environmental Science lecture and recitations and is today preparing to employ her 2019 award to create a lab component for another course.

The introductory course has traditionally placed its 150 students in two weekly lectures and split them into groups of about two dozen each for weekly recitations. The 2017 award allowed Whittinghill to forgo teaching in the summer, which is usually necessary to supplement her eight-month appointment. Instead, she had the chance to develop small-group, more active learning for her introductory course, as a substitute for one of the lectures, and to revamp the recitations.

The new small-group activities put three or four students together in assigned, rotating roles to address environmental case studies and problems relevant to each lecture, then asked them to report back to the recitation as a whole. All students also are required to watch brief videos on specific environmental issues before recitations so that each section can be devoted to identical ideas, rather than depending on an array of teaching assistant mini-lectures to keep them on the same page, as was done in the past.

The shift to small-group activities has allowed Whittinghill to interact more with students — circulating among them, answering their questions and overhearing their discussions.

“I can be listening to their thought processes and how well they are understanding the materials,” she says. “I see a lot more interaction between the students” as well, as they help each other to comprehend various aspects of the course.

They also feel free to ask her questions about the lecture when they’ve broken into small groups, Whittinghill finds. During lectures, she has begun to use Top Hat, which allows students to discuss issues in small groups and respond via clicker. Their answers, or an assessment of them en masse, appear on a screen visible to all.

Such changes have helped students to engage better with course materials and pursue more complex thinking about environmental issues, Whittinghill says. Working in small groups, they retain more course material and can practice communication skills valued by employers, she adds.

“I’ve seen lower DFW rates (students earning failing grades or withdrawing from class), better overall grades on the final exams, and, in general, better grades in the course.”

This summer, with time off from teaching thanks to her current dB-SERC award, Whittinghill is at work on creating a lab for her environmental geochemistry course. There, students learn about such environmental issues as atmospheric and water pollution and ocean acidification, plus the chemistry to understand and possibly mitigate these problems. Without the lab, she says, “we talk about chemistry techniques but there is no opportunity for students to practice those techniques.”

Awards program requires idea exchange

“There’s always been a dearth of people who research learning at the university level,” says Danny Doucette, a physics and astronomy graduate student and a teacher/scholar with dB-SERC.

He believes physics has been leading the way in discipline-based educational research — probably because it is a complex field and has traditionally failed to attract a very diverse student population, he says. With discipline-based education research “you also need to bring in educational theory: How do you instruct well and how do you assess the success of what you are doing?”

Singh, dB-SERC’s director, has been conducting research on discipline-based education for more than two decades. She continues to amass evidence that gearing educational methods to specific types of students in specific subjects can result in measurable gains in knowledge and in attitude, which can be just as important.

“Men with C’s have the same self-efficacy about learning in physics as women who are getting A’s,” Singh says. “This is not good.”

She has seen interventions right here on campus that have helped women students develop “a sense of belonging in the classroom.” It has, anecdotally, helped underrepresented minorities gain confidence as well, “but in physics we don’t have significant numbers to see statistical significance,” she says.

The dB-SERC course transformation awardees meet weekly and present talks about their ideas and progress. “Participating in those, my first year at Pitt, I met a lot of the other science faculty,” Whittinghill recalls. “It helped me feel a part of a community at Pitt.”

The weekly gatherings help faculty improve their approaches to course changes and conceive of new directions, based on others’ experience and thoughts, Singh says: “A lot of times when people are doing some innovative teaching and learning, things may not work as people expected. You may need to keep refining things to make them really adaptable to your students, to your own style.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.