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Improving science literacy means changing science education | FIU News

Introductory science courses typically require students to memorize facts, rather than teaching them the basics of scientific thinking. Maskot via Getty Images

Zahilyn D. Roche Allred, Florida International University

To graduate with a science major, students must complete between 40 and 60 credit hours of science coursework. This means spending around 2,500 hours in the classroom throughout their undergraduate career.

However, research has shown that despite all these efforts, most college science courses give students only a fragmented understanding basic scientific concepts. The teaching method reinforces memorization of isolated factsby jumping from one manual chapter to another without necessarily establishing links between them, instead of learn to use information and connect these facts in a meaningful way.

The ability to make these connections is also important beyond the classroom, as it is the basis of science literacy: the ability to use scientific knowledge to accurately evaluate information and make evidence-based decisions.

As chemistry education researcherI have been working since 2019 with my colleague Sonia Underwood to learn more about how chemistry students integrate and apply their knowledge to other scientific disciplines.

In our most recent study, we investigated the extent to which students could use their knowledge of chemistry to explain real-world biological phenomena. We did this by having them do activities designed to establish these interdisciplinary links.

We’ve found that while most students haven’t had similar opportunities that would prepare them to make these connections, activities like these can help – if built into the curriculum.

three-dimensional learning

A great deal of research shows that traditional science education, for both majors and non-majorities, does not teach science well students how to apply scientific knowledge and explain things they may not have learned directly.

With this in mind, we have developed a series of interdisciplinary activities guided by a framework called “three dimensional learning.”

In short, three-dimensional learning, known as 3DL, emphasizes that teaching, learning, and assessing college students must involve the use of fundamental ideas in a discipline . It should also involve tools and rules that help students make connections within and across disciplines. Finally, it must engage students in the use of their knowledge. The framework was developed based on how people learn as a way to help all students gain a deeper understanding of science.

We did this in collaboration with Rebecca L. Matz, an expert in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Then we took these activities to class.

Forging scientific links

To begin, we interviewed 28 first-year college students majoring in science or engineering. All were enrolled in both introductory chemistry and biology classes. We asked them to identify the links between the content of these courses and what they believed to be the takeaway messages of each course.

Students responded with long lists of topics, concepts, and skills they had learned in class. Some, but not all, have correctly identified the fundamental ideas of each science. They understood that their knowledge of chemistry was essential to their understanding of biology, but not that the reverse could also be true.

For example, students talked about the importance of their knowledge gained in their chemistry class about interactions – that is, attractive and repulsive forces – in understanding how and why the chemical species that make up DNA join.

For their biology class, by contrast, the central idea the students talked about the most was the structure-function relationship – how the shape of chemical and biological species determines their work.

Next, a set of interdisciplinary activities were designed to guide students in using the fundamental ideas and knowledge of chemistry to help explain real-world biological phenomena.

Students reviewed a basic idea in chemistry and used this knowledge to explain a familiar chemistry scenario. Then they applied it to explain a biological scenario.

One activity explored the the impacts of ocean acidification on shellfish. Here, students were challenged to use basic chemistry ideas to explain how increasing levels of carbon dioxide in seawater affect shell-building marine animals such as corals, clams and oysters.

Other activities required students to apply their knowledge of chemistry to explain osmosis – how water transfers in and out of cells in the human body – or how temperature can alter the stability of human DNA.

Overall, students felt confident in their chemistry knowledge and could easily explain chemistry scenarios. They had a harder time applying the same knowledge of chemistry to explain biological scenarios.

In the ocean acidification activity, the majority of students were able to accurately predict how an increase in carbon dioxide affects ocean acid levels. However, they have not always been able to explain how these changes affect marine life by hindering the formation of shells.

These results highlight that there remains a large gap between what students learn in their science lessons and their level of preparation to apply this information. This problem persists despite the fact that in 2012 the National Science Foundation published a set of three-dimensional learning guidelines to help educators make science teaching more effective.

However, the students in our study also reported that these activities helped them see connections between the two disciplines that they otherwise would not have perceived.

So we also came away with evidence that our chemistry students, at least, would like to have the ability to gain a deeper understanding of science and how to apply it.The conversation

Zahilyn D. Roche AllredPostdoctoral researcher, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Florida International University

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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