New perspectives on teaching science

More than 300 professors and staff from many of the divisions of Johns Hopkins University joined President Ronald J. Daniels and interim Provost Jonathan Bagger for the second annual Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences, held January 17.

The symposium is part of a larger effort called the Gateway Sciences Initiative, which seeks new strategies to improve understanding of how students learn and to promote innovation in gateway courses in science, engineering, and quantitative studies. The initiative also includes a grant program and a new faculty blog, The Innovative Instructor, which allows faculty to pose questions and share teaching strategies and results.

President Daniels opened the day with observations about numerous initiatives that are transforming science, math, and engineering instruction at Johns Hopkins. From construction of the new Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories, which will bring together nearly all basic undergraduate science labs and the faculty who develop curricula and teach in them, to the development of new team-based collaborative classrooms to creation of peer-based support groups in the gateway sciences, Johns Hopkins is aiming to transform its science curriculum into an active learning instructional model.

The day's first keynote was given by Robin Wright, associate dean and professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, who urged Johns Hopkins faculty to "teach what really matters, use what really works," and structure science classes around student discovery and problem solving rather than lectures. Bagger, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Physics and Astronomy, facilitated a discussion among Johns Hopkins' Gateway Sciences Initiative grant recipients, who provided a glimpse of early results from engineering, physics, biostatistics, chemistry, and biology initiatives that were funded last year.

Afternoon sessions included a presentation delivered virtually from Stanford University by Daphne Koller, professor of computer science at Stanford and co-founder of Coursera, one of the major providers of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Johns Hopkins is one of 33 universities that participate in Coursera through courses offered by the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Koller shared early data on what she and her colleagues are discovering about how students learn in online courses.

Also featured was a talk by William Durden, president of Dickinson College (and former executive director of the Center for Talented Youth). "Although science is not my field," observed Durden, who received his doctorate from and was a member of Johns Hopkins' German department, "there are a number of lessons research universities could learn from liberal arts colleges such as Dickinson." Liberal arts colleges stress student-faculty research collaboration and active student engagement in the sciences so that "students see science as part of a wider world after graduation." While acknowledging that some practices of liberal arts colleges may not translate to the research university, Durden suggested that others could be adaptable.

In closing remarks, Scott Zeger, Johns Hopkins' vice provost for research and professor of biostatistics, asked symposium attendees to answer on an evaluation form two practical questions designed to continue the day's conversations. First, "What's the most important concept you considered today that you will try out to improve student learning?" And second, "If you had $1 million to invest in the transformation of student learning, where should it go?" Stay tuned for the responses.