Pitt improving STEM teaching scientifically

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The art of teaching is going under the microscope.

The University of Pittsburgh announced last week that the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences has created the Discipline Based Science Education Research Center, which aims to improve teaching methods in the school's natural science departments.

Chandralekha Singh, professor of physics and astronomy, will serve as director for the center, nicknamed dB-SERC. She has researched sources of student difficulties in learning physics for nearly a decade and a half. She said the practice of teaching can be studied with the same research methods as other scientific disciplines.

"Scholarship of learning and research go hand in hand," Ms. Singh said. "We're looking to promote innovative teaching and become a leader in research-based instruction."

The center will use research-based practices for teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields, to better measure students' understanding. Faculty are encouraged to set goals of student learning and progress to improve comprehension.

The "dB" in the acronym takes on another meaning, according to Ms. Singh. While it does stand for "discipline based," dB is also the scientific abbreviation for decibel, a unit of measurement that records amplification, or measure of gain.

Measuring gain is exactly what Ms. Singh looks to accomplish.

"It's important to treat teaching and learning in a scholarly manner, as a science with measurable goals," she said."

Ms. Singh said many teachers are interested in improving students' learning, but they often don't have the tools to do so.

"Many people haven't been trained to be a teacher the way they've been trained to be a researcher," she said. "Our job is providing support for faculty members and make sure they have the tools to do well."

Ms. Singh said the center will develop faculty learning communities for teachers to discuss their experiences and compare tips and styles across departments.

Undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants in STEM classes also are invited to help assess learning in the courses they help instruct.

Ms. Singh stressed the importance of not only focusing on "content goals," such as mastering certain types of problems, but also "affective goals" relating to attitudes toward learning.

"Struggling is part of learning, and that's good," she said. "But we need to help students see that it is good," adding students often experience feelings of failure if they aren't able to grasp a concept immediately.

A 2012 study from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, found fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.

She said the center will work to decrease the number of dropout, failure and withdrawal rates from STEM programs at the university, while also improving science education for non-majors to create "a scientifically literate citizenry."

University officials are praising the center and its goals as a further improvement

"I'm very enthusiastic about the role that the Discipline Based Science Education Research Center can play in the university's ongoing development of a culture of evidence-based teaching," said N. John Cooper, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. "Professor Singh's specialization in physics education research positions her perfectly to serve as the inaugural director."

Carl Wieman, who received the Nobel prize in physics in 2001, will speak at the center's inaugural event Thursday. His lecture concentrates on taking a scientific approach to education. The event will be at 3 p.m. in the University Club's Ballroom B, 123 University Place. It is free and open to the public.

Lauren Lindstrom: llindstrom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1964.

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