Putting Education Reform To The Test

Opinion: Florida Universities Should Invest In More Hands-On Science Lessons

An example of a hands-on science classroom. Paul Cottle says students are more engaged than with a traditional lecture.

Courtesy of Paul Cottle.

An example of a hands-on science classroom. Paul Cottle says students are more engaged than with a traditional lecture.

As a physics professor at one of Florida’s public universities, I am always looking for ways to encourage students and their parents to take on the challenge of majoring in science or engineering in college.

A few weeks ago, I visited with parents of middle and high school students who attend a science-oriented school near downtown Orlando.  The parents wanted to know how to keep their kids on track for science and engineering careers.  I told them that their kids should keep taking math and science courses – including calculus and physics – all the way through high school.

And then I shared what I think are the two most important things for future scientists and engineers (and their parents) to look for in a college.  One is classroom instruction that actively engages students and is based on studies on how students learn best.  The second is the opportunity for students to get involved in cutting-edge scientific research programs early in their undergraduate years.

Fortunately for Florida’s students, there are fine examples of science classes that use what education scholars call “interactive engagement pedagogy” at several of the state’s public universities.

When talking with the parents in Orlando, I cited FSU’s studio physics program, in which there is little lecturing and students mostly learn through hands-on experiments and group problem-solving activities.  We measure student learning every semester, and in our most popular studio physics course the learning gains are double what they are in typical traditional lecture classes.

But physics departments at several other Florida universities are similarly focused on improving student learning, including those at Florida A&M University, Florida International University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of West Florida.

If Florida’s State University System is indeed focused on educating more scientists and engineers, it should take up the challenge of expanding opportunities for students to learn their basic science in these interactive classes by providing the facilities and other resources necessary to accommodate the increasing numbers of students who want to register for them.  To do this, administrators need to overcome the false perception of the efficiency of traditional lecture classes, in which more students can be squeezed into fewer square feet than in interactive classes.

Instead, the idea of educational efficiency must take into account the vastly improved student learning that takes place in interactive learning environments, and the resulting opportunities for more students to succeed in rigorous engineering and science degree programs.

amelia2Interactive science courses are particularly important for keeping students from disadvantaged backgrounds on track for science and engineering degrees.  But getting these students involved in scientific research programs early in their undergraduate years is equally important, according to studies of such students.

Limited opportunities for undergraduate students in their 2nd year or even 1st year to join research groups have existed for many years, but now some universities are getting involved in this issue at the institutional level.  Last summer, one student in an FSU-wide program joined a physics research group less than a month after his high school graduation.

Florida’s policy-makers have said they want more students from a variety of backgrounds to succeed in earning college degrees in science and engineering.  The faculty in Florida’s universities know how to make this happen.  Now our leaders need to give the faculty the resources and freedom necessary to do so.

Paul Cottle is a physics professor at Florida State University and writes about education issues, particularly science and math education, at his blog, Bridge to Tomorrow.


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