STEM faculty develop creative approaches to boost student learning

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Sharing progress on their innovative STEM teaching curricula are Venture Grant recipients Dr. Eric Mandell (left) and Jadwiga Carlson (right) with grant administrator Dr. Moira van Staaden.

Faculty at BGSU and Owens Community College are “venturing” into new territory to find novel approaches to teaching that they can employ in their undergraduate classrooms. Next semester, eight innovative projects will get underway, thanks to internal Venture grants sponsored by Project SEA Change: Improving Instruction and Enhancing Student Success in the STEM Disciplines. Faculty initiatives include using Lego robots to teach basic principles of computer coding and a video game in which the heroes (students) learn the laws of physics to overcome challenges as they make their way through the game scape. 

SEA Change is a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation grant received by Dr. Moira van Staaden, biological sciences, to introduce new ways of thinking about STEM pedagogy — an area of high need in the United States today. The aim is to get undergraduates off on the right foot, encouraging them to persist, and enhance retention. It builds on some of the best practices that arose from the earlier SETGO five-year NSF grant administered by van Staaden, which also included Owens.

In addition to evidence-based teaching practices, SEA Change also includes a biweekly meeting for faculty to share and network with one another. “We want to broaden the conversation and bring more people in, and develop faculty leadership,” van Staaden said. “You can combine teaching and research very successfully but you need people around you to provide support.”

Given the many demands on faculty, the Venture grants are designed to allow them the time, support or additional resources they need to actually develop and try curricula specific to their disciplines and their own personal teaching style and interests, van Staaden said. 

For game-loving Dr. Eric Mandell, physics, the grant is supporting his development of the video game.

“I love board games, role-playing games, computer games, strategy games, so this is a natural for me,” he said. “It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time; in fact, in grad school I thought about writing a little ‘physics novel’ along the lines of ‘CSI.’ 

“Most of the students in these undergraduate courses are not physics majors, and engaging them with the content is a challenge,” Mandell said. “It’s difficult to read a physics textbook, and the way you read a physics textbook is different from the way you read a novel. I see the game as another way for students to encounter the content of the course, using the technique of story-based learning. As they encounter the laws of physics in the story, they get information from the characters in the context of the game and can work on the concepts and problems from there. Their character will have a journal that will be populated with the formal laws and concepts as they discover them, and will keep a record of their thinking process that they can refer to as they go along. 

“The class can tie into what’s going on in the game. But it must be scaffolded in such a way to give them a better understanding and be presented in a way that they can solve the problems themselves. The real key here is turning it into something the students find helpful.”

Mandell is working with Michael Greene, a graduate assistant in higher education, to create the game and redesign the curriculum around it. They are planning to introduce the first “chapter” of the game, a Beta version, in fall semester.

“The game will not wildly change what’s going on in class but it will wildly change what’s going on outside of class,” Mandell said. “The game will be the homework; the students will play through the content and think about it, and our classroom activities have to reinforce that.”

Students in Jadwiga Carlson’s Introduction to Programming classes this fall will also have a vehicle — literally — for applying and testing their knowledge. They will be programming small robotic forklifts to do simple tasks. As with the video games in Mandell’s class, students will learn through context-rich problems in an applied world setting.

“The forklifts are made of Lego blocks, so they are instantly familiar,” Carlson said. “It removes some of the students’ anxiety about learning coding. The robots can move and do things, and they make the students feel more open to success.” 

Although they look like the colorful building bricks children have grown up with, these Legos are highly sophisticated. “The ‘brick’ body is the brain,” Carlson explained. It can be programmed to recognize ambient color and light, to speak and to recognize and sort items. Similar to a self-driving car, it has sensors and can keep itself from colliding with objects. 

Carlson will spend about the first three weeks of class having the students learn the RobotC programming language and using it to write code to get the Lego Mindstorms EV3 robots to obey commands. Their labs and assignments will be based on programming the forklifts.

“A lab assignment might call for them to write code to power the wheels for one second and then measure the travel distance from one rotation of the motor,” Carlson said. Carlson has 17 forklift robots, and the students will work in teams of two or three.

They’ll reflect at the end of each lab on what they learned and begin to extrapolate that to other problems.

“For example, there’s a basic but abstract concept in coding called ‘loops,’” Carlson said. Once students grasp this and have the mental model for the concept, they can use it to accomplish many things and can translate it to any computer language. 

“There’s more thinking and reflection that can go on, instead of simply memorization,” Carlson said. And in a pre- and post-experience survey of students who had worked with an object they could manipulate, 100 percent said afterward they found it helpful.

The robot approach to learning will have broad-ranging benefits. Introduction to Programming is a requirement for numerous majors in addition to computer science. Students in digital arts and visual communication technology, for instance, are required to take it.

“The robots will kind of level the playing field,” Carlson predicted. 

She bases this on her experience with another robot-based learning project. The college class utilizing RobotC is an expansion of a previous project sponsored by a $5,000 grant from Google CS Engage CS that she received in 2015. In addition, she is using robots in Code4Her, the computer science mentorship program sponsored by the Google Inc. Fund of Tides Foundation, which provided BGSU’s Women in Computing student organization $10,000 to purchase another 17 Lego robots. They were configured into puppies, and could be programmed to do such tasks as raising their heads, sitting and standing up. The girls are learning a simple “block language,” but the college students will learn a more sophisticated computer language with more sophisticated robots.

Other Venture grant projects on the Bowling Green campus and at Owens involve chemistry, statistics, biology, psychology, environmental studies and math. The grants help STEM faculty bring some of the same creativity they employ in their research to their classrooms.

“It’s an evolutionary approach to how we do things,” van Staaden said. “There’s no one pedagogy that works for everyone or every setting. STEM faculty are doing all sorts of interesting things.”