Research Center Funds Proposals on Teaching Natural Sciences

Issue Date: 
September 14, 2015

The Discipline Based Science Education Research Center (dB-SERC), created in 2014 by the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, has awarded funding to 12 faculty projects intended to bring innovation to the teaching and learning of the natural sciences.

There are two categories of awards. Course Transformation Awards fund projects that seek to improve student-learning outcomes and need financial support to implement strategies deemed effective by education literature. Mentor-Mentee Awards enable faculty to mentor a graduate student or post-doc in evidence-based teaching. The mentee works with the mentor’s supervision to modify a course and assess the effectiveness of the change.

Description of the nine Course Transformation Awards and three Mentor-Mentee Awards follow. 

Course Transformation Awards

Matteo Broccio, lecturer, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Algebra-Based Introductory Physics 1 in a Flipped Classroom Format

Broccio will transform the algebra-based introductory Physics 1 course into a flipped format. As such, he will devote all in-class time to student-centered activities that include prediction making, discussion, and problem solving. Students will learn new content by watching video lessons at home. Broccio will teach one flipped classroom section and one traditional lecture-based section of the algebra-based introductory physics course during the fall 2015 semester. He will then compare levels of student engagement and performance in both sections.

Kehui Chen, assistant professor, and Nancy Pfenning, lecturer, Department of Statistics

Improving Teaching and Learning in Introductory Statistics Classes through Student Response Systems

Chen and Pfenning will incorporate the use of student response “clickers” to improve teaching and learning in introductory statistics classes. Beginning this fall, Chen and Pfenning will have students use the devices to answer clicker-based surveys and short quizzes in class. The exercises generate their own data sets, which can be used to improve learning. “By engaging students in the design and data collection process, they can learn better about concepts such as sampling bias, sampling distribution, and confidence intervals,” the proposal said.

Brian D’Urso, assistant professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Instructional Laboratory for Experimental Training

This project will develop and assess two prototypical advanced-physics labs in an effort to provide undergraduates with a more authentic lab experience. The Instructional Laboratory for Experimental Training (INLET) will enable students in Pitt’s Modern Physics Measurements and Modern Physics Lab courses to explore and alter all parts of their experiments. It also will encourage students, using a “cognitive apprenticeship” model, to gradually perform more complex and sophisticated analysis on their own. 

Sean Garrett-Roe, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry

Expanding and Assessing Simulations in POGIL Activities: Using Smart-Phones, Tablets, and Laptops to Aid Student Learning of Physical Chemistry

This project will use a dynamic form of the Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) approach to teaching chemistry. POGIL helps students build their own knowledge base by guiding them through a learning cycle of exploration, concept invention, and application. POGIL, however, is based on paper worksheets, which are static, while the laws of chemistry are dynamic. Garrett-Roe has integrated Quick Response (QR) codes onto the class’s printed worksheets. Students can use them to see interactive simulations on their smartphones, tablets, and laptops. 

Ericka Huston and George Bandik, senior lecturers, Department of Chemistry

Development of a Chemistry Department Safety Course

Huston and Bandik will develop a stand-alone laboratory safety course for Pitt undergraduate and first-year graduate students who have teaching roles within the Department of Chemistry. The activity-based course will provide a broader and more rigorous understanding of best safety practices in any chemistry laboratory, and expand upon current instruction on how to prevent and respond to emergencies. The course will be developed in collaboration with Pitt’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety, the Department of Chemistry Safety Committee, and PPG Industries.   

Adam J. Lee, associate professor, Department of Computer Science 

A Feasibility Study on Transforming CS 0441, Discrete Structures, from Small to Large Classroom Format

Lee will assess student learning in a small class versus a large class of Discrete Structures, a mandatory course focusing on theoretical foundations of computer science. Lee will teach two sections of the same class, one with 50 students and the other with more than 120. In the large class, he will use clickers for in-class group work and a flipped classroom format for more difficult topics. The project is proposed as the department’s class sizes increase while the number of faculty teaching remains static. 

David Nero, lecturer, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Transformation of PHYS 0175 to a Flipped Format

Many students in STEM fields take introductory physics courses, but these large, traditional lecture-style classes sometimes bore students and discourage further interest in STEM fields. During the Spring 2016 semester, Nero will teach two sections of Basic Physics for Science and Engineering II, a calculus-based introductory physics course. One section will employ a traditional lecture format, the other, a flipped classroom approach. He will assess student attitudes and learning gains in both sections. If the flipped classroom shows learning gains, he envisions extending the transformation to other physics courses. 

Timothy J. Nokes-Malach, associate professor, Department of Psychology

Flipping the Script: Innovating Large Undergraduate Psychology Lectures with Learning Principles from Cognitive Science

Nokes-Malach will transform the Cognitive Psychology course, one of the department’s five core courses with about 200 students per semester, to a flipped classroom. Research has shown that self-explanation, analogical comparison, and memory-retrieval practice result in robust learning. Nokes-Malach will integrate these principles into the course. If assessment results show the flipped-classroom model to be successful, it could be used to restructure other large STEM lecture courses in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Welkin H. Pope, research assistant professor, Department of Biological Sciences

Creating a Cohesive Bioinformatics Classroom: Implementation of Wireless-Sharing Technology in Foundations of Biology II Laboratory 0068 SEA-PHAGES

The aim of this project is to increase interaction among students to facilitate learning and to create the sense of a larger authentic science community. The SEA-PHAGES course is a two-semester biology laboratory in which students conduct research to isolate and characterize new viruses, known as bacteriophages. Pope will use portable wireless ClickShare technology, which allows multiple students to wirelessly transmit the contents of their laptops to a projector. Such sharing will expose a class’s students to bacteriophage genomes, allowing them to address common problems as a group.

Mentor-Mentee Awards

Department of Biological Sciences
Mentor: Sam Donovan, lecturer

Mentee: Lisa Limeri, doctoral student
Integrating Modeling Instruction throughout a Large Lecture Introductory Biology Course

Donovan and Limeri will intensify the modeling instruction employed in the department’s Foundations of Biology 2 course. Such instruction organizes course content around a discipline’s core models and provides students the chance to build, use, and evaluate these models. The project will include changes to the structure of recitations, homework assignments, and lecture activities. Students will participate in small-group problem solving activities that involve modeling and learn how to use models to make predictions and analyze data. 

Department of Computer Science

Mentor: Adam J. Lee, associate professor

Mentee: William C. Garrison III, doctoral student 


Lee and Garrison will change how students in the Applied Cryptography and Network Security course work on semester-long group design projects. Instead of simply uploading end results for grading, the students will collaborate via shared version-control repositories. These repositories will enable instructors to assess the project’s flow, to identify group behaviors that indicate more positive outcomes—and to make changes to the course to encourage better student collaboration. 

Department of Psychology

Mentor: Natasha Tokowicz, associate professor

Mentee: Adeetee Bhide, graduate student

Introducing Students to Scientific Journal Articles in Introduction to Psychology

Tokowicz and Bhide will add a project to the Introduction to Psychology’s recitation sections: students will be asked to read and present both a popular press article and its primary source article. 

The goal is to increase students’ skill and comfort level in reading and assessing primary scientific literature. With Tokowicz’s guidance, Bhidee will develop instructions for the project, select a range of articles, and create the grading rubric and tests.