Flipping STEM Education

August 5, 2019

Flipped classroom model results in student engagement and achievement in Global Warming pilot

In the spring quarter of 2019, undergraduate students in the physical sciences course, Global Warming, created videos in which they attempted to convince Bob, an imaginary skeptic, that climate change is real. The project required them to demonstrate that they could articulate a scientific argument for global warming and understand the evidence for themselves. But how did students gain the skills and knowledge necessary to convince Bob?

Lecture-style class | Photo by John Zich

They watched short videos or read texts outside of class. They then met in small sections with a section leader who guided and coached them through a mixture of quantitative, visual, and discussion exercises so they could apply and practice what they'd learned. This model is known as a flipped classroom because it "flips" the standard model wherein an instructor lectures and the students practice what they learned outside of class—sometimes attending a discussion or lab with a teaching assistant.

"I think a lot of faculty teach how they were taught," said Dorian Abbot, Associate Professor of Geophysical Sciences. "For me, a teacher said something and I learned it, but when I started lecturing, I saw that wasn't how it worked for all my students."

Abbot piloted the flipped model with the Global Warming course because researchers, notably Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman, have demonstrated that active learning techniques result in better performance on assessments than the lecture format. 

"All the data indicates that this is a better way to learn science, and I want it to be as effective as possible," Abbot said.

Additionally, the flipped course model accommodates for the growing undergraduate population at UChicago, offering students more opportunities for personalized attention and small group interaction. Instead of meeting once a week in a large lecture hall, the 384 students enrolled in the Global Warming course met three times a week in sections of about 30 students.

"I felt like I could engage with the students more," said Andy Heard, Ph.D. student in the Geophysical Sciences and a section leader for Global Warming. "As a TA [for standard model classes], students only came to me if they had a question or issue. You're more of a problem fixer than someone who is involved in the teaching and learning process."

Before piloting the course, Abbot worked with Cecilia Lo and Cheryl Walker of UChicago's Academic Technology Solutions to integrate the course into Canvas, so students could receive immediate feedback during the pop-up quizzes and in-class exercises. For section leaders like Heard, this resulted in an improved grading experience.

"Yes, we saw the students more frequently, but most of my teaching responsibilities were kept within the classroom," Heard said. "As opposed to hours of grading outside."

Student discussion in physical sciences course | Photo by John Zich

On an anonymous mid-course survey, many students reported satisfaction with the flipped model. “It makes it significantly easier to receive more pointed and detailed feedback on assignments,” one student wrote. “Since conversation and collaboration is [sic] encouraged, I believe it creates better learning outcomes because we are not only learning from the videos and lecturer, but also from our peers.”

Kiki Zissimopoulos of the Chicago Center for Teaching and Brent Barker, a Teaching Support Manager in the Departments of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Geophysical Sciences, helped to train the section leaders in classroom facilitation before the quarter began. They hosted Heather Barnes, a Second City faculty member, who taught the section leaders to improvise and be more confident in the classroom. Abbot also met with the section leaders weekly, held office hours for students enrolled in the course, and visited each section during the quarter.

Abbot set three metrics to assess the pilot course's success. 

  1. 80% of students receive 80% or more on the final exam, which demonstrates basic quantitative reasoning and knowledge of global warming physics
  2. 80% of students receive 80% or more on the video project, which demonstrates the ability to articulate the scientific argument that global warming is occurring and that it is caused by humans
  3. 80% of students receive 80% or more on the writing of a Rolling Stone opinion piece, which demonstrates an understanding of the scientific argument for global warming that is strong enough that students can assess the evidence themselves

The course met the latter two objectives, with 99% of students earning an 80% or more on the video and 97% receiving an 80% or more on the opinion piece. The pilot did not achieve the first goal, with only 60% of students demonstrating quantitative proficiency. However, 83% of students received a 70% or higher on the final exam. 

While it wasn’t an explicit goal, attendance also improved. Prof. David Archer, who developed and taught the course for 20 years, reported attendance in the course to be as low as 25%. With the flipped model, attendance hovered between 90-95%.

Photo by John Zich

"Overall, the course was a success," Abbot reported. "Improving student quantitative performance is my main goal for next year."

As he plans for next quarter, Abbot intends to change the course to both address the quantitative gaps and student and section leader feedback.

"In the material, I'm putting in more intentional instruction on how to read plots, do simple calculations, and work with units," he said. "We're also going to have more frequent assessments where the individual student has to demonstrate quantitative skills multiple times so that I have a better sense of what people get and don't."

From a student survey, Abbot learned that students struggled with computer-based labs and video lectures. Abbot plans to incorporate more physical labs where students use infrared cameras, a temperature and humidity recording instrument, and a CO2 measuring instrument. He also plans to move away from the short videos and is writing a textbook, so that students can more easily review material.

Based on section leader feedback, Abbot is writing mini-lectures for the section leaders to deliver at the beginning of class. Next quarter, section leaders will begin with a ten-minute mini-lecture, followed by 30 minutes of group work on the lab or problem set, and ten minutes to review solutions. 

"The reality is that these required physical science classes aren't going to be the most difficult class on these students' journeysnor are they going to be in the area the students are most interested in, but I want the students to show up and learn something, and I think this model works best for that,” Abbot said.

Interested in learning more? Watch a presentation from the Symposium for Teaching with Technology.

For further reading on active learning in STEM, see:

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