Faculty attend institute, return to UT with new teaching ideas

December 26, 2013 | Features, UToday, Engineering, Medicine and Life Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics
By Samantha Watson

The number of students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is dropping nationwide, but educators at The University of Toledo are doing something about it.

“I feel like we’re losing a lot of students from STEM fields because they just don’t find it interesting,” said Dr. Douglas Leaman, professor and chair in the UT Department of Biological Sciences. “If students can feel the excitement for science that we scientists feel, they’re more likely to stay in the STEM disciplines.”

In October, Leaman and three faculty members from his department were named National Academies Education Fellows in the Life Sciences for the 2013-2014 academic year. The group includes Dr. Brenda Leady, lecturer; Dr. Robert Steven, assistant professor; and Dr. Tomer Avidor-Reiss, associate professor.

As fellows are using teaching methods they gained at the 2013 National Academies Northstar Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology. The methods were created at the institute to transform education and retain STEM students.

For the first three days, attendees watched presentations on scientific teaching, diversity, assessment, active learning and institutional transformation. During this time, and for the remaining two days, they also applied this knowledge by working in small groups on different projects that they later presented to the whole group.

Leaman said that the work they did was less about the content and more about the process of learning.

“I think it was really transformative for me and the other faculty in terms of our understanding of the importance of active learning in the STEM disciplines,” he said. “Studies have shown that students retain complex scientific information much better if they are actively involved in the learning process — you really don’t know something until you can explain it to somebody else.”

When the conference ended, the fellows were tasked with presenting what they learned to their institutions and continuing to communicate with the National Academies. Leaman hopes to send another group next year.

“I think I picked a great team to go on this first visit from our institution,” he said “They all are eager and they all are applying what they’ve learned to their courses already. And other faculty that have expressed interest in attending next year.”

This year’s trip was made possible with support from UT President Lloyd Jacobs and Dr. Karen Bjorkman, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

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