Image credit: Max Whittaker
By Richard Pérez-Peña
Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling piece 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.
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