If students in your physics department submit pre-class assignments over the web, collect data in their laboratory sessions using force sensors and motion detectors, use infrared transmitters to participate in interactive lectures, or complete collaborative exercises in recitation sections, chances are good that they are benefiting from NSF investment in undergraduate education through the Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program. Advances in teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) supported by the CCLI program were the focus of an April Conference in the DC area entitled Invention and Impact: Building Excellence in Undergraduate STEM Education. The conference, jointly organized by NSF and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, aimed to “inform the national audience about learning environments, course content, curricula, and educational practices that improve the learning and achievement of undergraduate students.” In particular, the goals were to:
- Share and demonstrate the effectiveness of selected undergraduate STEM curricular improvements and innovations
- Facilitate cross-disciplinary communication of innovative curriculum ideas
- Foster interdisciplinary interest in emerging science fields
- Engage the larger STEM community in discussions about NSF’s future priorities in undergraduate education.”
As befits the highly interactive nature of many of the educational innovations that were discussed, the 400 participants spent most of the three-day conference in workshops. Poster sessions provided plenty of opportunities for informal discussions while plenary speakers touched on major cross-cutting themes, including increasing diversity among STEM majors and professionals, and the challenges of creating and sustaining change on an institutional level.
Several workshops featured innovative physics curricula. Bob Beichner of North Carolina State University demonstrated the SCALE-UP (Student Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs) approach; Evelyn Patterson of the Air Force Academy introduced participants to Just-in-Time Teaching; Priscilla Laws of Dickinson College explored the common roots of a collection of activity-based undergraduate physics materials; and UW physics undergraduate Anne Durako and I led participants through an excerpt from Tutorials in Introductory Physics.
A number of posters featuring innovations in physics teaching reached a wide audience. Poster presenters included Jane Flood and Diane Follet of Muhlenberg College; Steve Thornton of UVa; Marty Johnston of the University of St. Thomas; Linda Fritz of Franklin and Marshall College; Tevian Dray and Corinne Manogue of Oregon State University; Enrique Galvez and Charles Holbrow of Colgate University; Kurt Hieggelke of Joliet Junior College along with David Maloney of IUPUI, Tom O’Kuma of Lee College and Steve Kanim of New Mexico State University; Nancy Beverly of Mercy College along with Robert Fuller and Vicki Plano-Clark of the University of Nebraska, Beth Ann Thacker of Texas Tech, and Mark Plano Clark and Christopher Wentworth of Doane College; Ruth Chabay and Bruce Sherwood of North Carolina State University; David Meltzer and Thomas Greenbowe of Iowa State University; Mario Belloni and Wolfgang Christian of Davidson College; and Ken Krane of Oregon State University.
Physics had a high profile at the Conference, in part due to the plenary talk given by Eric Mazur of Harvard. A temporary 400-unit personal response system was installed for the talk that allowed all attendees to experience interactive lecture techniques first-hand. During his talk Mazur presented findings from several experiments in cognitive psychology on human ability to discern visual information, including figures in popular introductory physics textbooks. Audience members participated in a few startling demonstrations that illustrated Mazur’s main message: seeing is not, in fact, believing! Many attendees walked away with a renewed sense of how students, even in the largest lectures, can be engaged intellectually.
A unique feature of the conference was the presence of 40 undergraduate STEM majors who accompanied conference presenters. On the final day of the conference, the students presented their impressions of their education and made recommendations. The students made a strong case for involving undergraduates early and often in research. Most cited interactions with individual faculty as having played a critical role in their decision to major in a STEM discipline and in forming plans for the future. The impact of welcoming undergraduates into their department and discipline was clear.
More information can be found at http://www.ccliconference.com/index.htm. Outcomes of the conference will be published in the near future. Ted Hodapp, Program Officer in the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE), played a central role in envisioning and organizing the meeting. Ted has been at NSF on leave from Hamline University in Minnesota and sharing responsibility for DUE physics and astronomy projects with Duncan McBride for the past two years.