Active Learning in STEM

Friday, Feb 8, 2019

Active learning “involves students doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” On January 14, 2019, the Council on Science and Technology, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education co-sponsored an interactive workshop for ~20 faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows on “Active Learning in STEM.”

Participants explored components of active learning pedagogy, the research behind how we know active learning in the university classroom works, ideas for overcoming barriers to implementing active learning, and three demonstrations of specific active learning exercises. Nancy Lape—Visiting Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and William R. Kenan, Jr. Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching—shared her exercise of having chemistry students work in small groups to brainstorm various ways in which someone might separate two liquids that have been mixed together. As students think through how to “unscramble the egg,” they are categorizing properties of liquids and relating lab methods to the properties the methods exploit. Howard Stone— Donald R. Dixon '69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor and Chair of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering—reflected on his past attempt to flip a few of his classes, and then discussed how he uses conceptual questions rather than just complex computations in his differential equations course. Sonja Francis— Lecturer in Chemistry and Faculty Fellow at the McGraw Center—designed a memory experiment for the workshop participants to illustrate how she engages chemistry students in best practices for keeping laboratory notebooks.

CST Associate Director Catherine Riihimaki and McGraw Senior Associate Director Kate Stanton facilitated reflections and discussions of the demonstrations. Participants observed that the active learning created two-way communication between students and the instructor, allowing for creative thinking, building of self-confidence, and the creation of a rich learning community. Attendees also participated in an active learning exercise to brainstorm ways to overcome challenges to implementing active learning. For example, participants suggested that one way to develop effective active learning activities without being overwhelmed with additional time for teaching preparation could be to use Princeton resources and staff like CST and McGraw.

The workshop culminated with participants generating ideas for how they can implement active learning in their own teaching, with opportunities for further discussions with Dr. Lape, Dr. Stanton, and Dr. Riihimaki during January.