Duration of initiative: 2016-2019
Case study written: Spring 2018
This project takes a low-budget approach toward transforming undergraduate geoscience teaching and learning at the University of Hawai’i (UH) School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) using evidence-based practices. Over the three-year project period, our key goal is to support SOEST faculty as they introduce evidence-based, active-learning pedagogies, including innovative assessments, into their classrooms. The Geoscience Course Transformation project is based on the work of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI).
What is the context of the initiative?
University of Hawai‘i School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST)
- Institution type: large school within a research-intensive public university.
- Size: ~260 students (45% undergraduate), ~240 faculty, and ~570 staff.
- Of note: there are 3 faculty tenure streams: research faculty (~0-1 courses/year), instructional faculty (~4 courses/year), and specialist faculty (variable teaching loads).
Departments involved in the initiative
- Eligible departments: only SOEST departments were eligible.
- Participating departments: all three SOEST academic departments were involved in the initiative: Geology & Geophysics, Oceanography, and Atmospheric Sciences. In addition, several of SOEST’s research units (such as the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology and the Pacific Biosciences Research Center), whose research or specialist faculty do some teaching, were involved.
How is the initiative structured?
The initiative is a small, grant-funded project aimed at geoscience departments
The Geoscience Course Transformation Project is a small part (one of four components) of an Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) Geopaths grant funded by the US National Science Foundation ($393k USD over a three-year period). The project is led by Principal Investigator (PI) Barbara Bruno and Co-PI Jennifer Engels, with one month per year of PI time budgeted for this project and 1 month of Co-PI time leveraged from a related grant. After the IUSE grant ends in 2019, intensive promotion of effective pedagogy techniques will either end or be sharply curtailed. However, we anticipate the active-learning techniques promoted during the 3-year project period will persist within the classrooms for decades to come.
- Successes. Our faculty are enthusiastic about the program! More than 100 faculty representing the SOEST academic departments and research units listed above attended at least one of the seven pedagogy presentations and workshops delivered during Year 1. Twelve faculty volunteered for COPUS observations, 16 faculty have implemented two-stage exams, and 10 faculty have agreed to pilot targeted interventions in their classrooms over the next year. One peer-reviewed publication has been published.
- Challenges. There is no institutional financial support for this effort. There is very limited soft-money salary support for the PI and Co-PI—and no support for teaching assistants or learning support specialists. This lack of resources limits what could otherwise be accomplished. Also, department chairs have shown varying levels of support for the course transformation efforts.
Participation in the Geoscience Course Transformation project occurred at the faculty level
We aim to empower SOEST faculty to take ownership of their professional development with respect to evidence-based pedagogy techniques. The PI and Co-PI have made available a variety of resources for faculty to develop their expertise on classroom methodologies. Due to the relatively small scale of this grant (as compared to programs such as CWSEI that support Science Teaching and Learning Fellows; termed DBESs in the SEI Handbook), initiative on the part of faculty is key to their engagement. Thus, the “science education specialists” in this project are the individual faculty—supported by the expertise of the PIs.
- Successes. Several early adopter faculty from each department have led the way in demonstrating the efficacy of evidence-based active teaching practices in their classrooms. One department faculty (Geology & Geophysics) has initiated informal brown bag sessions to share successes and strategies.
- Challenges. Some ‘old guard’ faculty continue to be resistant to change within each Department. Most simply decline to participate, but a small handful has been vocally opposed to this initiative.
The central organization is strong and highly motivated
Led by PI Barbara Bruno and co-PI Jennifer Engels, the Geoscience Course Transformation project operates independently of individual departments and is responsible for: writing grants to obtain project funds (including salary support); training and motivating SOEST faculty; advising department and School leadership on best practices for active teaching methods; coordinating cross-department and cross-institutional sharing of materials; and bringing external contacts and expertise to SOEST to support the initiative’s work.
- Successes. We regularly receive and promptly respond to requests from SOEST faculty and administrators regarding pedagogy. Our prompt responses have been important in maintaining interest and enthusiasm for the initiative to date.
- Challenges. Department-level leadership has been variable across the school. Although the dean’s office expresses strong support, there are no tangible incentives for individual faculty or entire departments to cooperate. Working with the UH Institutional Research Board (IRB) to approve research protocols has been time-consuming.
PI and Co-PI’s capacity for leading change was supported by visiting experts
In each year of this three-year project, one week of UBC CWSEI on-site support is budgeted. In Year 1, Drs. Sara Harris and Sarah Sherman conducted two workshops and multiple one-on-one consultations with faculty. In Years 2 and 3, Dr. Sherman will return to conduct follow-up support and consultations. A National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) Traveling Workshop hosted by Anne Eggers was also conducted in Year 1.
- Successes. 27 SOEST faculty attended the CWSEI and NAGT workshops during Year 1 and/or took advantage of the opportunity to receive individualized teaching support. Benefiting from the additional credibility generally acceded to outside experts, CWSEI and NAGT faculty succeeded in converting a few holdouts among our faculty to being more receptive to the idea of active learning.
- Challenges. SOEST faculty are always busy and over-committed, so encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the visiting experts took heavy-handed marketing.
PI and Co-PI interact regularly with a professional community
Both PI Bruno and Co-PI Engels have interacted with the geoscience education community at professional conferences, such as the National Association of Geoscience Teachers’ Earth Educator’s Rendezvous (EER). In addition, they participate in other discipline-specific meetings such as the Geological Society of America and American Geophysical Union annual meetings.
- Successes. Project presentations at the EER and GSA meetings following Year 1 were well received and resulted in productive and helpful discussions specific to our project goals.
- Challenges. Funding is limited for Mainland travel.
Potential future graduate seminars may further support use of active teaching methods
Our grants do not provide funding to departments for the salaries of embedded experts such as Science Teaching and Learning Fellows (STLFs)—postdoc or contract faculty positions hired into the department partnered with faculty to measure learning, change courses, evaluate curriculum, and a variety of other roles. In the future, we may be able to create a new course to train graduate students in active-learning pedagogies, and those students could be paired with existing instructors. In this win-win situation, graduate students would gain valuable teaching experience and strengthen their resumes. Instructors would receive teaching assistance from trained graduate student co-instructors.
- Successes. This idea has received strong support from both interested graduate students and faculty.
- Challenges. No salary has yet been identified for course instructors.
What are the key outcomes of the initiative to date?
Early adopter faculty lead change in their departments
As described above, several early adopter faculty within our SOEST Departments have been pro-actively pushing for modernization of teaching methods among their colleagues. They feel supported by the resources for professional development and training that our Geoscience Course Transformation project has provided and have encouraged many of their peers to participate. They have reported improvements in their teaching evaluations from students, and some have noted increased enrollments in their courses.
Awareness of the initiative is generating further faculty engagement
COPUS classroom observations, pedagogy workshops, and informal ‘brown bag’ sessions have been gaining popularity among faculty during the first year of the project. We expect that faculty participation in Years 2 and 3 will continue to increase as awareness of the efficacy of active learning continues to grow through peer support and word of mouth.
Impact on the broader STEM education community
Recently (2017) published results show that two-stage exams (piloted in 7 SOEST classrooms) resulted in a mean test score increase of 16 percentage points. Even more promising is a narrowing of the achievement gap between students who performed lower (bottom 50%) vs. higher (top 50%) on the individual stage of the exam. The former group gained an average of 25 points from individual to group stage, while the latter gained an average of 6 points. These results indicate that students at all levels benefit from collaborative exams, and that collaborative exams can be used to proactively decrease the achievement gap. We anticipate that two-stage exams and other active learning techniques will increase the retention of students at all levels.
Moreover, the State of Hawai‘i’s diverse student body is not well represented within SOEST. For example, Native Hawai‘ians and Pacific Islanders comprise 26% of the state population but only 6% of SOEST majors. We believe the SOEST Geoscience Course Transformation project, combined with the other three components of the IUSE Geopaths grant, will attract diverse students into SOEST and create an environment in which they can thrive.
How do I get more information?
Scholarly work that has been produced on the initiative
- B. C. Bruno, J. L. Engels, G. Apuzen-Ito, J. Gillis-Davis, H. Dulai, G. Carter, C. Fletcher, D. Bottjer-Wilson, 2017. Two-stage exams: a powerful tool for reducing the achievement gap in undergraduate oceanography and geology classes, Oceanography, vol. 30, p. 198-208, 2017.
- B. C. Bruno, J. L. Engels, G. Apuzen-Ito, J. Gillis-Davis, H. Dulai, G. Carter, C. Fletcher, D. Bottjer-Wilson, 2017. Collaborative testing in undergraduate oceanography and geology classes: Abstract presented at 2017 Annual Meeting, Earth Educators’ Rendezvous, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 17-21 July.
- J. L. Engels, D. Bottjer-Wilson, K. Kane, B. C. Bruno, 2017. COPUS findings may help explain low diversity in geoscience majors: Abstract presented at 2017 Annual Meeting, Earth Educators’ Rendezvous, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 17-21 July.
- B. C. Bruno, J. L. Engels, G. Apuzen-Ito, J. Gillis-Davis, H. Dulai, G. Carter, C. Fletcher, D. Bottjer-Wilson, 2017. Two-stage exams reduce the achievement gap in undergraduate Oceanography and Geology classes: Abstract 137-5 presented at 2017 Fall Meeting, GSA, Seattle, Washington, 22-25 October.