August 29, 2011

Can we build better science courses?

The Johns Hopkins University is, figuratively speaking, going back into the learning laboratory to augment, enhance, rejigger and, in some cases, reinvent its foundation science courses.

Lloyd B. Minor, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, has launched a yearlong universitywide effort called the Gateway Sciences Initiative to promote wider adoption of successful teaching techniques already in use and to encourage the development of innovative new approaches to learning.

The major initiative is believed to be the first of its kind at Johns Hopkins.

Earlier this summer, Minor formed a 21-member faculty steering committee—co-chaired by Steven David, vice dean for undergraduate education and a professor of political science in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and Marie Diener-West, director of the Master of Public Health program and professor of biostatistics in the Bloomberg School of Public Health—to guide and lead the initiative. The committee, which has already met several times, has been charged to work throughout the year to identify and promote best practices and to develop recommendations for a strategic approach to continuous improvement in gateway science courses in all divisions.

Scott Zeger, the university’s vice provost for research and a professor of biostatistics in the Bloomberg School, said that the purpose of this initiative is to enhance the quality of teaching and learning at JHU in the courses that serve as entry points, or provide critical introductory material, in the natural, behavioral, engineering and medical sciences, and in other fields where some basic scientific knowledge is a necessary component.

“I remember vividly being inspired by a gateway molecular biology course as a university freshman. Discovering how the natural world works, and one’s own potential to learn more, is enlivening,” Zeger said. “Johns Hopkins is in the process of transforming the way students discover in gateway sciences at the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

The initiative defines gateway science courses as those that establish the necessary fundamental knowledge base for subsequent or more specialized subject area study and research. Gateway courses are also intended to generate excitement about the individual disciplines and help students develop the skills necessary to facilitate the self-discovery and independent learning techniques necessary for a future career in scholarly research.

These courses include introductory classes in biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, statistics, bioinformatics and others with a basic natural science or quantitative focus in fields such as medicine, nursing and public health.

Many gateway courses are offered in large lecture-theater formats or massive laboratory sessions. However, smaller courses can be considered gateway courses if they present information on which a further curriculum depends.

The committee, working closely with Zeger, has laid out a series of efforts to meet the initiative’s lofty goals.

Of note, the Provost’s Office has committed funds for a competitive grant process that kicks off today [see sidebar]. The goal is to identify and fund a set of pilot projects that will both improve current gateway courses and point the way to potentially larger changes in pedagogy, course and program design, and instructional methodologies that will position JHU to provide the best possible training for its students in all fields of study impacted by such courses.

Proposals will be reviewed by the Gateway Sciences Initiative steering committee, which will try to identify potential for transformative impact on student learning. The basic question the committee will ask is: How will the proposed project advance the cause of gateway science teaching at JHU?

All grant recipients will be required to provide an interim report on progress toward the project’s goals halfway through their funding period. Upon completion of the grant period, recipients will be expected to submit final reports detailing outcomes, successes and failures. This report should include discussion of future opportunities that can build on the outcomes of the funded work.

Grant recipients will make poster presentations on their projects at an annual Gateway Sciences Initiative symposium. The first symposium is scheduled for Jan. 20, 2012, and will include outside experts on teaching and peer instruction.

The Gateway Sciences faculty steering committee will host two open meetings to allow faculty and staff the opportunity to discuss the RFP and the broader initiative. For the East Baltimore campus, a meeting will be held from 4 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 14, in W1030 at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. A Homewood campus open meeting is scheduled for 3 to 4 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 26, in the Mason Hall auditorium.

David said that while many students report a positive experience from JHU’s gateway courses, some are left unsatisfied.

“These are very important steppingstone courses. We need to do a better job in how we offer them. In some cases, the techniques and approaches haven’t changed in many years,” David said. “This is a bold new initiative that potentially impacts thousands of students. It’s hard for me to conceive of a way to affect more students quicker than helping improve the teaching of gateway science sources. Even the good classes can get better. There is new technology out there, new teaching techniques that we can learn from.”

David said that changes could come in the form of better utilization of teaching assistants, new course structures, smaller class sizes and a reimagining of how a class connects with other courses in the discipline.

He said that the use of technology will also be thoroughly examined. Some students are well-served by traditional lecture-style presentations, he said, while others could benefit from a more active, varied form of engagement with the material.

“Some technology can definitely help,” he said. “Just look at the current use of clickers in some of our classes. A professor could pose a question like, Do you understand how RNA is transmitted, and then students respond yes or no with the clicker. The use of technology in this way can make the class more interactive. It’s just one example of how we can make these courses more engaging and enjoyable.”

Diener-West said that this initiative emphasizes the importance of teaching and learning in large foundational courses.

“It shows the backing and commitment of the university in promoting and supporting this mission,” she said. “It is a very exciting opportunity for creative thinking, sharing of best practices and advancing Johns Hopkins’ collective experience in innovation in education.”

David said that any concrete changes to courses would not likely take effect until fall 2012.