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PHILADELPHIA, PA.--"Today's students grew up with TV sets, VCRs and computers in their bedrooms, and we're simply not going to reach them with teaching techniques from the early 1900s," University of Delaware educator Barbara J. Duch said Feb. 17 during the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting. "Yet, that's exactly what's happening in many university classrooms."
At UD--one of only 10 institutions nationwide to receive a 1997 National Science Foundation award recognizing "bold leadership" in classrooms--student detectives are tackling 21st-century challenges, said Duch's colleague, Harold B. White III, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry. "In an increasingly complex world, students will need to be problem solvers, and so we must change the way we teach," said White, who co-organized the AAAS session, "Strategies for Enhancing 21st Century Education," to help boost the odds for future generations.
White, Duch and Deborah E. Allen, an assistant professor of biological sciences, described UD's pioneering effort to help undergraduates experience the joy of investigation through problem-based learning (PBL). Based on medical-school techniques, PBL methods require students to solve real-world problems through meticulous research, just as a scientist would put a promising theory to the test, White explained.
Problem-based learning also allows UD undergraduates to practice "metacognition"--that is, reflect upon the way they learn, White said. "Instead of lectures and memorization, we use hands-on activities to guide our students through the learning process," he said. "In this way, they begin to think critically, becoming independent problem solvers, capable of working in teams toward a common goal. In today's workplace, these are crucial skills." Other educators at the AAAS session discussed the link between children's biological development and classroom learning. For example, session co-organizer Herman T. Epstein of the Marine Biological Laboratory examined brain growth as it relates to educational issues. And co-organizer Michael Shayer of King's College at the University of London described efforts to accelerate learning among 4,500 teen-agers. Geraldine Lockhard of Queensborough Community College discussed her efforts to empower secondary and post-secondary learners by heightening their awareness of thinking patterns and learning problems.
Real-World Classroom Activities
In Allen's classes at UD, students learn about photosynthesis by evaluating a real proposal to counteract global warming by dumping iron into the ocean waters off Antarctica. While investigating whether iron would stimulate chlorophyll, trigger photosynthesis and reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, undergraduates are introduced to key biological concepts, said Allen. And, because they work in small groups facilitated by a peer tutor, students "begin to practice higher-order thinking skills such as evaluation and analysis," while also gaining communication and team-building skills, Allen said. "The best way to learn a subject is to teach it," she added. That's why UD faculty train peer tutors to prompt classmates with questions, rather than stock answers.
In the early 1990s, only seven UD faculty members were implementing problem-based learning methods, reports Duch, associate director of UD's Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center. Since 1992, however, 206 faculty from 42 different UD departments and 22 administrators representing 15 units have completed PBL training. Moreover, 105 faculty and administrators from other institutions throughout the United States and four other countries have attended UD's PBL workshops, Duch says. Such a dramatic transformation required strong support from University administrators, said Duch. "We were fortunate because UD administrators have encouraged our efforts from the onset," she noted. "In fact, they recently consulted with us concerning the design of classrooms that are `group-friendly,' with tables, moveable chairs, resource cabinets and lots of chalkboards."
During the AAAS session, students like Jennifer Hess of Moorestown, NJ, said UD's efforts to bolster PBL initiatives provide big payoffs for undergraduates. Hess, a senior biology major headed for medical school next year, serves as a peer tutor in Allen's classes. Her favorite PBL exercise turns students into emergency-room doctors, who must diagnose two brothers and then determine the best course of treatment for dehydration. "It's a powerful problem for freshmen, because it helps you learn about the renal system," Hess said. "It's a practical problem. At many institutions, you would have to wait until your junior or senior year to learn about a case that complex."
Hess was one of four UD students who shared their experiences as PBL peer tutors during the AAAS session. Serving on the student panel were Hess, Joseph Lesley of Smyrna, Del., Amanda Pottorff of Devon, Pa., and Kurt Williamson of Newark, Del.
NOTE: This AAAS session will take place Tuesday, Feb. 17, from 12:30 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. in the Philadelphia Convention Center, Room 113-B.