PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Theodore Raymond Muth

F21 Class of 2005 Statement

Theodore Muth is Assistant Professor of Biology at CUNY-Brooklyn College.

How are colleagues in different disciplines coming together to reshape the undergraduate STEM learning experience?

During the last year I participated in two workshops on science teaching methods sponsored by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, an organization based at SUNY Buffalo. At these workshops I found that a number of undergraduate faculty shared a similar concern regarding shortcomings in the preparation students receive in their STEM courses. In order to function effectively, independently, and prudently in today’s society a student needs to be able to apply an ever increasing range of scientific and mathematical concepts during a routine day. Yet, pedagogical approaches in undergraduate STEM courses have not changed significantly in order to fulfill students’ need for an understanding of science and math that can be applied to the complex decisions they need to make. Admittedly, this concern is based on the anecdotal observations of only a handful of STEM faculty, and it may be that more rigorous investigation would show that this concern is unfounded. However, if these few observations are not grossly off the mark, it appears that the STEM content students ought to understand is growing rapidly, while there have been relatively few compensatory changes, in either how most faculty teach or in the amount of time spent in class, that would allow students to keep pace with the expanding STEM content.

The most reasonable solution to this problem that I can actually implement in my own courses is to try to excite students about science and to help them develop the skills, confidence, and desire to learn outside of my class important material that we were unable to cover during the class. This is a variation of the “teach a man to fish…” approach. One of the important points I have learned from the case study workshop leaders, and the colleagues I have met at the workshops, is that the standard lecture format is not always the best strategy for engaging and motivating students to become “life-long-learners.” For me the two workshops were a great opportunity to see how other science educators integrate the case study approach into their courses. It was an encouraging surprise to see three separate case studies presented by an ecologist, a research librarian, and an economist, and think to myself that, with a few modifications and shifts in emphasis, I could use the same case studies in my own introductory microbiology course. Moreover, in these case studies the feedback from the undergraduate students (being paid to serve as “typical” students and evaluate each of the case studies being presented) confirmed that this method was more engaging and more likely to keep them thinking about the science involved in the case study outside of class.

The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science has been working with science educators for over 15 years, and in that time the Center has developed as an excellent collection of proven case studies in a wide range of STEM disciplines. During this time the Center has helped science educators make important changes in their teaching strategies that are very likely to help turn out better prepared students. It is clear that meaningful changes in undergraduate science instruction may be established through a self-perpetuating mechanism as former workshop participants gain experience and confidence in using case studies in their classes and spread interest in this method to faculty within the STEM departments at their home institution.