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College of Arts & Sciences

Tips and Resources for Teaching STEM

Improve Your STEM Teaching Skills

By Dr. Edna Lima and Dr. Erik Bozcko

Teaching is hard, period! There are, however, some differences in the material to be taught in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses that offer specific challenges that do not necessarily arise, or arise less frequently, in the humanities or in the arts. Here are some strategies, learned by experience, which may be of value to graduate teaching assistants who are teaching STEM courses at the college level for the first time.

One of the most common instructional elements of technical coursework is to scaffold the ideas in a class period, over a module, and throughout an entire course in a logically connected fashion. Surprisingly, perhaps, this can be done in many ways. In math, you do not have to prove that logarithms or exponentials are one-to-one functions to understand their properties and to move forward using them. Logarithms are a great example of a mathematical function that appears in every technical field: pH, growth rate of organisms, heating and cooling curves, and so on to infinity. As a student, it may take a mathematician two hours of explaining to finally get you to understand logarithms, post-precalculus, or post-calculus. As an instructor, you may find that getting students into your office hours is a useful and effective means of helping them to better understand class content, which is our first tip.

TIP 1: Get Students to Come to Your Office Hours Whenever Possible.

Everybody knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. The use of graphics and videos in the classroom has exploded and offers us the opportunity to concisely convey technical information. However, there are some obvious pitfalls to avoid when choosing and using this kind of support. Showing a video of another (perhaps famous) instructor talking may seem ironic at best and may be foolish to some. Materials such as this may be best be utilized by posting links on Blackboard and letting students view this content on their own time. Many other items are best utilized in this way as well. What is novel about your classroom is you! Your class time is the time when students get to experience and interact with you. Your class time can be enhanced by graphics and videos and clickers and technology, but only when it will benefit students and help with the students' learning. This reminds us of the bumper sticker that reads: “You can't hug your kids with nuclear arms.” This leads to our second tip.

TIP 2: Relegate the Majority of Web-Based Content to Links through Blackboard.

Edward Tufte's books and ideas have transformed the way academics view and present information. His ideas are in part critical dissection of the ways in which formatting can be used to deceive. More information about Tufte can be found at his website. Tufte's work, along with the work of many others, has increased awareness of and helped to shape a field of study that uses various keywords such as infographics, data visualization, information design, and others. The tip to digest from this body of work follows.

TIP 3: Presentations Should Inform the Audience, Not Guide and Reassure the Presenter.

There are many great resources available to help instructors create informative graphical presentations of technical ideas and data. Among the most popular are Pictochart and infogr.am. There is a very detailed compendium of links and resources pertaining to the creation of infographics at Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything. In addition, there are numerous tutorials devoted to demonstrating and instructing how to create and teach with graphics. A few of our favorites are listed here.

Creating infographics for science education tutorials:

These links lead to our next tip.

TIP 4: You Don't Have Time to Reinvent the Wheel.

Over the last three years, instructors have been reading about and experimenting with active learning techniques. Perhaps the most successful of these is Team Based Learning (TBL), which has now been almost universally adopted in American medical schools. Almost every service course in the Mathematics Department now incorporates some form of active group work. The concept of active learning is already fundamental to language instruction courses where students must actively converse in a foreign language during each class period. Therefore, it seems obvious that the more students become engaged, losing themselves in the class activity, the more they will learn and at a faster rate. This brings us to the next tip.

TIP 5: Familiarize Yourself with the Theory of Active Learning and Experiment with It in Your Classroom.

In keeping with Tip 4, we offer a collection of resources, developed by amateurs and experts, which describe how to teach technical material at the college level, with a particular focus on active learning. These links have influenced our teaching and maybe they can help you, too.

How to teach science in college:

So, those are some of our tips. However, they are not the only tips, and they were not discovered on some ancient stone tablets. They are heuristic and, to a great extent, personal. If you interviewed 10 teachers, you would probably receive different tips from each of them. Thus, our final bit of advice is: Ask everybody and believe nobody until you experiment. The scientific method is based on the paradigm: Form a hypothesis and then perform an experiment to test it. The next collection of links is provided to help you to compare your teaching experience with those of others at comparable American universities.

GTA specific videos:

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