For his article for The New York Times, reporter Richard Pérez-Peña visited UC Davis to observe the experimental approaches being taken to improve student success in introductory STEM courses. He spent the day with Catherine Uvarov, a chemistry instructor at UC Davis who has been working with Hub Director and Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Marco Molinaro, Associate Director of Instruction & Assessment for the iAMSTEM Hub Christopher Pagliarulo, and many other Hub team members to implement tools for instructional innovation and analyzing student learning in her Chem 2A course, leading to an evidence-based approach to teaching at UC Davis.
DAVIS, Calif. — Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling pieces of paper. The instructor speaks from a podium for nearly the entire 80 minutes. Most students take notes. Some scan the Internet. A few doze.
In a nearby hall, an instructor, Catherine Uvarov, peppers students with questions and presses them to explain and expand on their answers. Every few minutes, she has them solve problems in small groups. Running up and down the aisles, she sticks a microphone in front of a startled face, looking for an answer. Students dare not nod off or show up without doing the reading.
Both are introductory chemistry classes at the University of California campus here in Davis, but they present a sharp contrast — the traditional and orderly but dull versus the experimental and engaging but noisy. Breaking from practices that many educators say have proved ineffectual, Dr. Uvarov’s class is part of an effort at a small but growing number of colleges to transform the way science is taught.
“We have not done a good job of teaching the intro courses or gateway courses in science and math,” said Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities and a former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. “Teaching freshman- and sophomore-level classes has not had a high enough priority, and that has to change.”
Multiple studies have shown that students fare better with a more active approach to learning, using some of the tools being adopted here at Davis, while in traditional classes, students often learn less than their teachers think.
The University of Colorado, a national leader in the overhaul of teaching science, tested thousands of students over several years, before and after they each took an introductory physics class, and reported in 2008 that students in transformed classes had improved their scores by about 50 percent more than those in traditional classes.