Db-SERC awards help faculty transform their classrooms

The Discipline-Based Science Education Research Center (db-SERC) gave awards to 10 University of Pittsburgh faculty members for adopting evidence-based approaches in teaching.

Located in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, the center has awarded faculty annually since 2014 for using evidence-based methods to “transform” the way their courses are taught.

Emily Marshman, associate director of dB-SERC, said the center offers the awards to encourage faculty to use more evidence-based methods to improve student performance in Pitt’s nine natural science departments.

“The center strives to help Pitt be a national leader in evidence-based instruction in the natural sciences,” Marshman said in an e-mail. “Furthermore, faculty members share their course transformation projects within a faculty learning community, which supports and promotes scholarly approaches to teaching and learning.”

Faculty members selected for an award can receive up to $10,000 to transform their classes, Marshman said. The amount awarded depends on the specific needs of each course.

The money can go toward equipment, a summer salary for faculty or for paying graduate or undergraduate students for their help in transforming the class, Marshman added.

These new teaching methods can help students improve their ability to tackle complex subjects and improve critical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills, Marshman said.

“Students’ attitudes about learning science also improve, and they have an increased excitement about learning. Students from the underrepresented groups develop higher self-efficacy about learning that impacts their learning,” Marshman said.

However, students don’t reap all the benefits.

“Faculty members benefit by learning about evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning, which they can adapt and adopt in their own courses,” Marshman said.

Chosen projects

Transforming Introduction to Physics 2 into a flipped classroom course

Project director: Matteo Broccio, lecturer, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Broccio will apply a “flipped classroom” technique used in his Physics 1 for his Physics 2 courses. This technique involves short video lectures, while time in class is used for self-diagnostic, pre-class activities where students will make predictions on demonstrations and discuss with classmates.

Development of a teaching assistant training program for introductory physics labs

Project director: Russell Clark, senior lecturer, department of physics and astronomy

Clark will develop trainings for teaching assistants to help cater to the unique needs of inquiry-based introductory physics labs,. These labs, which don’t have a set procedure, are conducted with TAs introducing a topic to students, then helping them as they explore the topic using experimental equipment.

Using TopHat to personalize student learning and expand the scientific skillset in a large biological science classroom

Project director: Candice Damiani, lecturer, Department of Biological Sciences

It can be tough to meet the needs of individual students in large introductory courses. However, with the aid of TopHat, an in-class, online learning platform, Damiani hopes to hone in on students’ individual needs. This program will help asses individual students’ strengths and weaknesses through tests students can take on their own electronics during class.   

The effect of in-class activities and web-based homework on exam performance in a large-enrollment, lecture-based course

Project director: Jennifer Ganger, lecturer, Department of Psychology

Granger has a different approach to improve student performance in her large developmental psychology course. Since research suggests that constant contact and engagement with course material can improve learning, Granger plans to add more in-class activities and twice-weekly, online homework assignments to help familiarize students with course materials.

Storytelling in cell biology: Vertically integrating a very complicated class

Project director: Kirill Kiselyov, associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences

Kiselyov will break complicated biological processes down into digestible “storylines” for his students in his cell biology course. These stories will be given to different groups of students who will fill out the details using concepts discussed in class.

Creating a comprehensive bank of materials for use in statistics and probability for business management

Project directors: Bryan Nelson and Nancy Pfenning, assistant instructor and senior lecturer, Department of Statistics

Nelson and Pfenning are planning to combine teaching materials for the Statistics and Probability for Business Management course to help assist newer instructors. The combined materials will consist of Power Points, assignments, Excel projects and more.

Aligning teaching methods and students’ learning needs: Active learning vs. traditional classrooms

Project director: Armin Schikorra, assistant professor, Department of Mathematics

Schikorra will use a more personalized approach in teaching calculus by tailoring his lessons to the unique cultural backgrounds and individual needs of students. He’s planning to integrate group work and active learning into his Calculus I course – all in an effort to provide a variety of teaching methods to his students to see which works best.

Utilizing technology to advance engagement and availability in large lecture general chemistry courses

Project director: Michelle Ward, lecturer, Department of Chemistry

In an effort to improve student engagement outside of class beyond office hours, Ward will implement a technology platform called Shindig for her larger general chemistry courses. The platform would allow Ward to track student performance, post recordings of lectures, host virtual review sessions, have one-on-one interactions with students and more.  

Transforming lecture demonstrations to enhance student performance and engagement

Mentor: David Nero, lecturer, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Mentee: Rashid Williams-García, post-doctoral fellow, Department of Neurobiology

Nero and Williams-Garcia are planning to create four new lecture demonstrations through the LabView software. The software will allow lecturers to reliably set up experiments ahead of time and focus more on the experiment rather than the demonstration equipment.




Donovan Harrell, dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905