NSF grant helps STEM faculty rethink their courses

Story by Mary Gallagher

Western’s Science, Math and Technology Education program is coordinating a $2 million, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to change the way undergraduate science and math classes are taught in the region.

The goal is to have fewer lectures and memorization, said SMATE Director Ed Geary, and more student problem-solving, collaboration and discussion to explore big concepts.

“What we know now is that almost immediately after the need to memorize this information is removed — such as a test — students in this learning model, at least in regards to the sciences, retain as little of 10 percent of that information down the road,” Geary said. “That’s not effective learning, so we wanted to try something new that is based on 20 years of research about how people learn.”

About 60 faculty members from three campuses — Western, Whatcom Community College and Skagit Valley College — are involved with the grant. The goal: Encourage students to discover the answers to problems or questions, rather than tell them how something works.

“They pose these questions to the groups and then help the students navigate their way through the discovery process,” Geary said. “This new model means that we may cover fewer topics in the same time period, but that the students remember and understand far, far more of the core concepts than they did before.”

The grant is reaching faculty who teach core classes in Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Environmental Science, Physics, Math and Geology.