University of Maryland Baltimore County Launches New Structure for Learning Science

  “All deans supported this funding, and we thought about this building carefully when we came up with the design.” Dr. Philip Rous, dean, College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, University of Maryland Baltimore County


“All deans supported this funding, and we thought about this building carefully when we came up with the design.”

Dr. Philip Rous, dean, College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, University of Maryland Baltimore County

As Dr. Philip J. Rous spoke of his earlier years in college, in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, he recalled the large lecture halls and science laboratories. “I was sitting in class thinking that I could learn as much out of a textbook,” he said. “I found that to be a poor mode of instruction.”

When he came to the U.S. to start teaching as an assistant professor of physics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in 1990, that traditional format of teaching was also in place.

“We had large lectures here as well,” he said.

Today, as dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences (CNMS) at UMBC, Rous has been supporting a new method of instruction with results that have thus far proved successful.

He established a new teaching approach and center called CASTLE (CNMS Active Science Teaching and Learning Environment) this past fall. In a high-tech center – a separate building created to house up to 94 science and math students in one big classroom – students cluster around workstations of three to solve problems or conduct activities or simulations. Instructors can monitor and engage with students, supporting a more active learning environment than traditionally provided to students.

The inspiration for creating such a center came from earlier centers at the university and other institutions, in addition to a gradual shift in teaching that has occurred during the past decades. Back when Rous arrived at the University of Maryland to lecture halls, he had already begun to witness changes in teaching approaches beginning to take place.

“In addition to large lectures in the past, we would also have breakout sessions with about 30in a classroom,” he said. “Typically, an instructor or a teacher’s assistant would work through problems related to what they had heard about in the lecture. My perception is that in the U.S.universities, that was the first motion away from pure lecture teaching.”

Rous explained that a lot of discussion about student engagement followed in the 1990s to2000. “There was a feeling that the lecture for-mat had a very low level of engagement with students, and we were looking for ways to improve student engagement. Much of the research in this area began in K-12,” he said. “In science and physics, there were a number of people in leadership who were beginning to think about how to use technology to engage students. At UMBC, we started working with clickers. This would allow the instructor to get answers from students on questions and to see how well they knew the material. It gave teachers a sense of the average student, but it didn’t provide individual faculty engagement with the student.”

A push toward further active learning approaches opened the door to cooperative learning, whereby students learned more in groups. In addition, in science, schools wanted students to learn more than concepts, and instead supported conceptual understanding of material and the development of fundamental skills.

Despite these changes, CNMS also maintained its lecture approach to teaching, and especially within gateway courses. As a consequence, within the department of chemistry, student performance in its entry-level courses was poor – enough so that 10 years ago department chemist William LaCourse decided to do some-thing about it.

“We were losing ground. Students were doing worse on tests, and more were failing or dropping courses,” he was quoted as saying on the Science magazine website. “Attendance was spotty, and only the best students were showing up for extra help. The number of chemistry majors was also declining.”

Back then, LaCourse and others decided that the key problem was Chemistry 101, a gateway course for possible chemistry majors or students interested in other science fields. The course had been described by the local newspaper as a“weed-out course.” Unfortunately, the consequence of such weed-out courses, especially in the sciences, is that many students, and particularly first-generation or underrepresented students who aren’t always as prepared as they could be for the rigors of colleges, become dissuaded from entering science fields in general.And, this occurred at the same time as STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) were – and still are – in need of more people, specifically those of minority groups, to enter these fields, not fewer.

LaCourse and others wanted to help change low STEM statistics such as the following: Only about 20 percent of underrepresented minorities who aspire to a STEM degree actually earn one in five years, according to a longitudinal study cited in the NRC report by researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles. In addition, beyond minorities, only 33 percent of Whites and 42 percent of Asian-Americans complete their STEM degrees in five years.

“We know that students come to UMBC with an interest in STEM, and their intention is to major in STEM,” said Rous. “A significant fraction of these students struggle through these introductory courses, but if they can’t get at least a C, because of the stacking nature of science and math, this sets them on a slippery slope for succeeding in other classes and receiving a degree in that major. We needed to create a solid foundation at the basic level.

”As a consequence of losing far too many students through its gateway courses – and needing to create “a solid foundation” – the chemistry department changed the way these students would be introduced to chemistry. They converted Chem 101 and Chem 102 into “Discovery Learning” courses, in addition to changing academic, social and financial support for their minority students. Now students who used to sit in lecture halls listening to two-hour lectures by a graduate student solving problems on a whiteboard are part of four-person teams responsible for finding the right answers. Teaching assistants guide students, while small lectures are still given by a top-level chemist. Laptops and cellphones have been banned from the sections so that students can focus on the assignment.Attendance is mandatory, and unexcused absences result in lower grades.

These changes have produced very clear results. Pass rates shot up from 70 percent to 85percent the first year, despite the fact that the department also raised the minimum score.Attendance has also improved, fewer students have dropped the course, and the number of chemistry majors has nearly doubled since 2003. In addition, the school’s American Chemical Society chapter is now thriving, unlike before.

In 2005, the chemistry department officially opened a Chemistry Discovery Center to house these courses. In this center, students sit in groups of four at small, round tables with PCs, monitors and a mobile white board. The computers are net-worked to teacher stations that can monitor and retrieve information. There are also flat monitors on walls. Within their groups, students are responsible for different tasks – one as researcher,another as scribe, etc., and a manager within each group allocates time so that all members are held responsible for their part in learning.

It was the success of the Chemistry Discovery Center that prompted Rous to create the CASTLE program and center, which opened this past fall.CASTLE was constructed separately from the Chemistry Center as a 2,400 square-foot space that accommodates 94 students in groups of three. This large classroom has 11 custom-built tables that allow computer monitors to be lowered into the desk surface and locked into place so that student interaction isn’t hindered by technology. Nine of these tables seat nine students each (in three smaller groups of three),and two tables seating six students support triad-learning teams. The room also holds 10 wall-mounted white boards, eight wall-mounted 52-inch LED monitors networked to computers, and an instructor’s station with the latest interactive instructional software.

Last summer, faculty were trained to use the center’s features, and were invited to use the center as an incubator of new strategies for active learning last fall. A Blackboard community and a regular site for announcing information and meetings were also established online.

Although faculty were invited but not required to use CASTLE as a teaching site, it achieved 75 percent utilization during its first semester. The current semester, it is expected to reach 80 percent occupancy. According to Rous, this is good news. In the regular university environment, a 70 percent occupancy rate is considered maximum during an average 9-6 day. And CASTLE has already exceeded this, with an 8a.m. to 8 p.m. schedule.

Asked to explain how CASTLE works, Rous used a possible physics class as an example.“Conceptually, one thing you may be able to do is have about five minutes in which an instructor is talking about a concept. Then you give students a tabletop toy experiment and have them experiment with this. Then, the students are asked to model or explain a phenomenon they are seeing. In the CASTLE method, they can construct their model on the computer and see if their model matches what they are seeing. Then,what they find out can be modeled to another group. The teacher also walks around the class-room and provides ideas, or shows which models work or don’t work. Students are essentially teaching themselves. So we are focusing on how students learn, and adapting our environment to how they learn.

”At the time of our interview in late fall, Rous was very pleased with the first-semester results of CASTLE. “It has been interesting. It has achieved many of the things we had hoped. This has been a very large initiative that has touched many students and classes,” he said. “Building the infra-structure was the easy part. The difficult part has been for faculty to implement curriculum change to adapt to this new structure. It’s extremely risky putting many incoming freshmen into an environment where we don’t have much experience.

”In this piloting phase of the center, Rous has made a point to be flexible and to give time for faculty to adopt changes and try new ways of teaching within CASTLE. “People are moving into the space and are beginning to the use the aspects of technology present for their classes. They may be using Powerpoints up on the monitor or trying out a sophisticated clicker system,” he said. “Then, over the subsequent semester we’ll be looking at best practices and getting feedback from our instructors and students. Those most successful in the space will then be invited to be there.”

For some faculty, CASTLE will provide an alter-native setting that complements their existing lecture environment. For others, the center will replace their current teaching location and provide students with a more hands-on learning environment in science. Science laboratories will not be eliminated,but for some, lecture hall settings will be.

While this approach to teaching and learning may cost the University of Maryland more in the short run than having students sit in traditional lecture halls, the long-term payoffs – even economic ones – should be worth it. “All deans supported this funding, and we thought about this building carefully when we came up with the design,” explained Rous.

“If you are going from a lecture setting with one person in front with three classes (rather than one teacher per 300 students), an instructor and support staff will be needed three times.There’s a workload increase with this. But you have to look at the cost of the large fraction of students who have not passed these courses in the past.” Students who get a D in chemistry, he said, “will have to re-register for the class. And if40 percent of Chemistry 101 is not passing the class, this many students will repeat the class.So, in effect, if we live with the status quo, then we are teaching students twice, which is like doubling the workload anyway.”

Beyond looking at the cost of CASTLE, the benefit of enrolling and graduating a larger and more diverse group of students into the STEM fields will ultimately produce higher benefits and lower costs for all of society. And if the Chemistry Discovery Center provides any measure of possible success for CASTLE, then this new center will not only graduate and retain more students in the sciences, but will also provide a solid ground for more under represented students to build a true passion for STEM fields.