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Science in a large lecture format for the non-scientist

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What’s the best way to teach scientific concepts to the non-science major? How do you attract and keep the attention of students who are most likely in your class simply because they have to fulfill a requirement? And can all this be done in a large lecture class? These kinds of questions have plagued educators for years, and Andrew R. Zentner, Department of Physics and Astronomy, is taking a step toward a solution. In his ACIE project, “A General Education Course on Energy Sources, Uses, and the Environment,” he is  creating a unique course that would be designed for students with no prior university-level physics or mathematics experience. The course will focus on energy use and energy sources using active problem solving and real data on the impact of climate change.

The Fukishima accident in Spring 2011 has brought renewed attention and scrutiny to nuclear energy, and students around the world have expressed an interest in classes on various energy-related topics. One of the missions of The Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences is to provide an opportunity for high-impact educational experiences in the natural sciences. The topic is also aligned with the expertise of the professional astrophysicists at Pitt. Students are interested in energy and climate change, but some might be frightened away from the topic because it is so rich with math and science. This course frames math and science with a topic that the students care about, lessening the intimidation factor and increasing the motivation for learning.

Zentner’s perspective on science tells us that even the hard sciences have to accept and manage uncertainty when finding a solution—an approach that translates well in the classroom. In his own words, “You roughly know how something works, you roughly know how something else works, you put them together, and you roughly know how it is. That’s the way you can think quickly about a problem. And that gets you 80% of the way to the solution.”

Zentner also feels that a learning experience like this will get students to think critically about the information they receive in their everyday lives. He says “One way you can inoculate yourself against being fooled is, instead of thinking of a few isolated facts, think about the logical framework that relates one fact to the other. So this is what I’m trying to bring to this class—that if you see some fact, take a minute and think to yourself: what does that fact alone tell me and how does it relate to other facts?”

In the spirit of open learning, Zentner intends to share materials freely. Zentner says “Everything I develop I plan on putting on the Web and everyone can get it.” One of the deliverables for this grant is a collection of presentations, 12 inquiry-based problems, customized software to demonstrate atmospheric change, and an extensive question bank. The course will run for the first time in Fall 2014.

By Joe Horne, CIDDE


SEPTEMBER 2013

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