The Chicago State University Science Teaching and Learning Laboratory

Mel Sabella

Chicago State University (CSU) is taking action to make the teaching and learning of science both more welcoming and more effective for students underrepresented in the STEM disciplines. CSU has made a substantial commitment to the teaching of science by renovating two classrooms each year in the sciences. This past year, CSU President Wayne D. Watson called on the department of Chemistry and Physics and College of Arts and Sciences Dean David Kanis to build one of the most advanced physical science classrooms in the country. The department looked at a variety of innovative models in physics instruction at institutions that included North Carolina State University, the University of Oregon and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

President Watson's commitment of just over 1.5 million dollars to promote the use of modern innovative instructional techniques for the teaching and learning of undergraduate science addresses both the importance of increasing diversity in the number of STEM majors in undergraduate and PhD Programs and addresses the national need to increase the number of highly qualified Physics and Chemistry Teachers in the country. Both these issues have been receiving increasing attention by the public and national organizations in physics and chemistry are taking the lead in both understanding and addressing these issues. Less than 6% of the PhDs in physics are awarded to students of color. The percentage in chemistry is also low, at 10%.1 Both the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society recognize the important role that universities who serve large minority communities can play in efforts to increase diversity.

The renovations to the physical science classrooms provide an example of CSU's support for the teaching and learning of science. The classes that are held in these rooms utilize the latest techniques in reform-based instruction and include the majority of physics courses, a number of physical science courses and many chemistry course lectures. The Chicago State University Physics program has completely revised their introductory physics sequence as a result of four grants from the National Science Foundation Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement Program (NSF-CCLI). These reform efforts have led to both content and attitudinal gains for our students and have led to the recognition of the types of resources that underrepresented students bring to science classrooms. 2 The new classrooms are allowing the Physics Program to realize the full potential of the reform efforts and utilize new and exciting teaching and education research techniques.

A view of the classroom showing five of the eight Starboards and students sitting in groups of six around tables that foster collaboration.

Kristina and Angela, two physics majors, explore an interactive simulation of a ripple tank on one of the Starboards.

CSU draws its students from the community on the southside of Chicago. The school is about 90% African and 70% female, both populations underrepresented in the disciplines of chemistry and physics. These instructional innovations, guided by the departments' research in Physics Education have led to a new model of instruction that fosters the development of an active scientific community and builds on the strengths of the urban physics learner while addressing the specific challenges students have in physics throughout the country. The design of the new classrooms was led by faculty in the Chemistry and Physics Department, working closely with architecture firm AECOM and AV contractors Whitlock, one of the largest companies in the country that specialize in this type of technology-rich environment. Each classroom is designed for group collaboration and active learning, with four hexagonal tables in each room that allow students to work in eight groups of three or four groups of six. Whiteboards have been placed on all four walls, with one wall a removable partition that is itself a floor to ceiling whiteboard. Each room is also equipped with eight independent Starboards that each utilize a section of the whiteboards.3 These Starboards can work independently, with each having different content. For example students can work on a physics problem, or they can develop a Mathematica workbook, or they can interact with a physics PhET simulation.4

An instructor can send any video source to any display destination so that results can be easily shared. For instance, an instructor can say, "I'm interested in what group three came up with for their solution. I would like each group to comment and critique their solution." Group 3's work can then be shared on all the starboards in the room for discussion. In addition, an advanced video codec allows the possibility of combining screens into a seamless image that stretches across up to six starboards. This technology is quite new for the instructional setting but lends itself to very exciting possibilities.

Because of the University's strong commitment to education and education research, with three faculty members in the department of Chemistry and Physics focusing on this work, it was important that the classrooms support this effort. Each of our two classrooms has four video cameras in the ceiling and four wireless microphones that can we used to capture students working on different types of tasks. This data is then used to revise curriculum, identify specific difficulties and resources that our students have and document the use of effective instructional tools. Assessment is an important part of the CSU mission and allowing the possibility of capturing a rich set of qualitative data is an extremely powerful tool in developing a deep understanding of student knowledge and how we can better serve our students.

Tasha (left), a CSU physics major, describes a lesson she is preparing for a high school class to Kara, a Chicago Public Schools teacher, as part of the CSU PhysTEC Program.

Joel, a CSU engineering studies student, uses a PhET simulation to explore kinetic and potential energy.

In a given semester, about twenty courses are taught in the new classrooms in physics, physical science, and chemistry, with about 350 students participating in these classes. These physics courses serve students in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, and Education. It is our hope that the new classrooms will make physics instruction more accessible to this diverse student population. Chemistry faculty are also using the rooms for interactive lectures and recitations. Because the rooms promote inquiry- based science instruction, these classrooms are ideal settings for the preparation of science teachers. CSU is currently serving education students at all levels through the use of innovative instructional materials. Elementary and middle school education majors are enrolled in two courses that integrate best practices in the classroom. One course utilizes the Physics and Everyday Thinking (PET) Curriculum, a nationally known curriculum for the preparation of preservice teachers.5 In addition to serving the needs of education majors the new classrooms will have a profound effect on our students pursuing secondary education. CSU is making significant changes to its physics secondary education program as a result of support from the APS PhysTEC Program.6

The students in our secondary education program all go through the introductory courses that are now being taught in the new classrooms. Many have found that teachers teach the way they have themselves been taught, which makes the use of the new classrooms an essential element in the training of teachers.

Each year students from Ashburn Middle School in Chicago engage in a science lesson developed by CSU preservice science teachers as part of CSU’s NSF Noyce Program. This year about 40 students participated in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics experiments that focused on light and optics.

Ishtar and Barbara engage a group of middle school students engage in a lesson on light and optics.

Physics programs often struggle with low enrollment. Through CSU's NSF-CCLI Programs, the Noyce Program (which provides financial and intellectual support for students preparing to be HS science teachers), the PhysTEC Program, and through the innovative instruction made possible by the new classrooms, CSU hopes to increase the number of majors in physics and address the severe lack of representation of students of color in this field. The situation is dire. Recently, The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) has decided to close all programs that produce less than five graduates a year. "If all the other states were to adopt Texas' approach … 526 of the roughly 760 physics departments in the US would be shuttered. All but 2 of the 34 HBCU physics programs would be closed. A third of underrepresented minorities and women studying physics would have their programs eliminated."7 Investing in physics is more important than ever.


2. "Using the resources of the student at the urban, comprehensive university to develop an effective instructional environment," Sabella, M. S., Coble, K., and Bowen S. P., 2008 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings (AIP, NY).
4. See
7. Policy News Article from the National Society of Black Physicists (September 2011). See

Mel Sabella is a Professor of Physics and Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Physics at Chicago State University. His research is focused on identifying the needs and resources of students underrepresented in the STEM disciplines.

Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.