How Science Class is Moving Online

Even for the self-declared “science geeks” who think they want to spend the rest of their life in a lab, freshman biology class can be intimidating.

Multiple reports have found that nearly 50% of students who start a science, engineering, technology, or mathematics (STEM) degree change majors before their senior year. Part of the reason is the mentality of making freshman and sophomore level science classes hard to drive out the less dedicated students from science and pre-med fields. This means more dedicated individuals are becoming doctors, but there are a lot fewer specialists, like obstetricians, out there.

“There has been a weeding-out mentality that has been prevalent for too long,” said Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources for the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. “Many scientific disciplines are starting to wonder if they are their own worst enemy.”

Malcom explained that the low retention results in STEM classes are leading science educators to ask if it’s because students can’t do the work, or if it’s because science education hasn’t evolved to meet the needs of the 21st century.

“We think a lot about what online education is providing and what does a science class need,” Malcom said. “And we are starting to see that content transfer, the lectures teaching the concepts, can happen outside of the classroom, which frees up class time for things like exploration and experimentation.”

She went on to say that one of the mega-trends in college education that her organization is watching is the development of blended, or hybrid, classes which combine online and on-campus elements. Malcom said that science associations aren’t looking at hybrid education to be popular, but to be practical.

“Hybrid offers students the chance to view material more than once and move at their own pace,” Malcom said. “The online part of a hybrid class could be available beyond the campus.”

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One of the professors who is putting the hybrid model into practice is David Marcey at California Lutheran University. Marcey recently took his freshman biology class and flipped it, students now watch cinematic versions of lectures before they come to class.

Marcey said that, from a pure teaching standpoint, the new format has allowed him to expand what he can do in the classroom. Instead of trying to compress as much material as possible into the three on-campus hours his class meets, he can devote that time to teaching critical thinking and deductive reasoning.

To help teach those necessary skills Marcey uses enrichment activities, like building DNA models or using drama based exercises to portray the exchange of genetic material. In the few months he’s been doing this he has found that “students are more engaged after watching the cinematic lectures.”

“They ask more questions and I have more time to answer those questions,” Marcey said. “In the old model we expected them to listen to the lecture, read the book, synthesize the two, and then think critically about them.”

He explained that the sink or swim mentality that characterizes some science classes has helped create the “leaky pipeline” that plagues STEM education. He hopes his experiments with both a hybrid and the completely online biology class he plans to offer this summer will help plug the leaks.

“My lofty motivation is that we will reach a segment of the student population that we weren’t reaching before,” Marcey said. “We are losing a lot of potential scientists, doctors, and nurses.”

Follow Alex Wukman on Twitter @alexwukman

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