Three years ago we were motivated by a desire to change the prevalent passive teaching mode and to involve students in active learning enhanced by technology, The Ellis School introduced a significant reform in science, technology, and engineering courses by using class time in new ways that create more student agency. The Active Classroom for Girls project focused on re-designing classroom space, reforming ninth grade physics curriculum and conducting an original research study to measure if active learning impacts student’s ability to learn science content and on students’ attitudes. The remodeled classroom spaces combined with active learning pedagogy created increased conceptual understanding, improved attitudes, successful problem solving, and higher success rates, particularly for girls. The Ellis School has scaled the active learning approach to other courses and disciplines across the school.
Active learning, or student-centered learning, is a pedagogical approach where students participate in activities that allow them to reflect upon concepts and how they are using them, while also assessing their own understanding and skill (Michael, 2006). These methods yield a variety of benefits: they are student-centered, they maximize participation; they are highly motivational; and they give life and contextualize content by encouraging students to move beyond a superficial, fact-based approach to materials (McCarthy & Anderson, 2000; Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Ladousse, 1987; McKeachie, 1999; Schaftel & Schaftel, 1976; Van Ments, 1994).
In the Future of the Learning Space, Long and Ehrman (2005) share four ideas that shape our understanding of active learning classrooms and how they might be designed:
- Learning by doing matters
- Context matters
- Interaction matters
- Location of learning matters (Long & Ehrmann, 2005, p. 46)
The underlying assumption in active learning is that knowledge cannot simply be transmitted from teachers to learners: learners must be engaged in constructing their own knowledge. The role of social interaction is central in teaching and learning science and in studying the world. (Duit & Treagust, 1998; Vygotsky, 1963). Peers help each other by offering alternatives and sustaining reasoning activities, and individuals benefit from this interaction by integrating knowledge from peers and the environment (Vygotsky, 1978). Active learning often goes hand in hand with constructivist ideas, and was initially promoted by Dewey (1924). In active learning, the emphasis is placed less on transmitting information and more on developing student’s skills. Active learning environments encourage students to engage in solving problems, sharing ideas, giving feedback, and teaching each other (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998).
Literature reveals that active learning methods result in more meaningful learning than traditional methods (McKeachie et al., 1986). Students also report greater satisfaction with an active learning course over the traditional (McCarthy & Anderson, 2000). Advocates of learning space design express that “benefits of teaching and learning practices outweigh the short-term costs by promoting constructivist forms of active learning, encouraging pedagogical innovation, improving conceptual, theoretical and applied forms of learning and increasing overall student engagement” (Brooks, 2010).
Another powerful concept sometimes hidden within active learning practices and space design is the formation of community. The concept of community refers to a group of people with a common purpose, shared values, and agreement on goals (Bickford & Wright, 2006). In a learning situation, the presence of community can be a significant motivator for its members for achieving exceptional performance. Furthermore, because physical and virtual learning spaces have been shown to play a critical role in enabling or deterring community, it is important to evaluate the role of space and its design as a means to improving student learning and engagement in community (Bickford & Wright, 2006).
Girls in STEM
Active learning helps girls visualize, hypothesize, and improve their intuition about conceptual models of scientific phenomena in all areas of science. Girls in the United States aren't any more interested in STEM careers than they were 10 or 20 years ago (McCrea, 2008). Using active learning approaches can be part of the solution to correct this problem. The proportion of women pursuing science degrees has declined since the mid-1980s and that, while women now earn 35 percent of chemical engineering degrees, just 14 percent earn electrical engineering degrees. The trend continued into the workforce, where men outnumbered women 73 percent versus 27 percent in all sectors of employment for science and engineering. In March 2013 the White House Office of Science and Technology policy stated that a STEM career offers women the opportunity to engage in some of the most exciting realms of discovery in technological innovation. Community, contextualization and collaboration are key strategies to engage young women in STEM. These three strategies are core pieces of the active learning approach at The Ellis School.
The primary goal of The Active Classroom for Girls project at Ellis was to establish a highly collaborative, hands-on, technology-rich, interactive learning environment for science and engineering courses. The project involved the development of the pedagogy and curriculum, a remodeled classroom environment, and teaching materials that will support this type of learning. It included the development, evaluation, and dissemination of new curricular materials in engineering design, physics, chemistry, and biology courses over the course of a two-year period. It is also the first time that these methods, which worked successfully at the university level, were applied to a grade 9-12 environment.
Part 1: The Main Pedagogical Goals
- To create a cooperative learning environment that encourages students to collaborate with their peers, questioning and teaching one another.
- To minimize lecture during class as appropriate.
- To coach the students during activities by assisting them in answering their own questions and by letting students present their results to the class for review by instructors and peers as opposed to just telling students the answer.
Part 2: Classroom Remodeling to fit Active Learning Classroom Model
The design of the classroom is an important consideration for teaching in this method. In science and engineering classrooms students need to be able to do the following:
- Work in groups of 3 students
- Have access to computers and the internet
- Have access to equipment to perform experiments
- Participate in class discussions
- Present/display work to peers
The common elements of the ‘Active Learning’ rooms are having at least one computer or LCD TV for each group of students, internet access for each group, lab equipment for each group, an instructor station with projector so that students can see the screen wherever they sit, and ample white boards.
In my next post I will talk about some of the results of the study!
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