Casting a fresh 'i' over science

August 22, 2003

Problem-based learning is replacing the uninspired combined science teaching of yore. Derek Raine charts its ascent.

A long time ago, when the phrase "inspiring students" was not on our university mission statement, I circulated a short note suggesting changes to the way our combined sciences degree was taught. The sciences were not so much combined as entirely separate, I argued, and they were simply not inspiring. Could we not modify the programme so that students were not forever thrashing around in the foothills?

Unfortunately, suggesting change implied faults in the prevailing system. This was a slur on those who ran it. I was summoned by my departmental head and asked whose side I was on and whether I was intent on forgoing entirely any prospect of promotion.

Times change. Our breakthrough came as a result of a spending cut round in the 1980s. It revolved around how to teach mathematics to physics students.

The traditional "maths lecture" is a peculiar activity. It begins life as a section in a textbook, which is transcribed, with minor inaccuracies, to the notes of the lecturer. These notes are then copied with the occasional mistake onto the blackboard. From there they are copied again, almost always without understanding and with abundant errors, into the notes of the students. The students then attempt to prepare for examinations by reading these notes.

We suggested an alternative and thus relieved colleagues in the maths department of teaching physics students.

A small physics department team prepared a workbook that taught by example and used set exercises, many computer-marked, to diagnose difficulties.

Small-group work and supervised class work were used to support the workbooks.

The approach we took was eminently flexible, allowing free-formed groups to proceed at different speeds. There were no set targets, no prior testing and, above all, no remedial classes. The range was wide - the fastest students completing the work in a third of the time of the slowest. Some students still got poor marks, but the general improvement was heartening.

The next objective was to extend this to physics teaching. Over a number of years, support mechanisms were put in place that allowed us to abandon traditional lectures. We then faced the final hurdle of changing the role of the physics lectures to exploit the potential of flexibly paced teaching. This restructuring plan met some opposition but eventually was overwhelmingly voted for by staff, with one abstention.

Students are now able to read for their physics degree, just as they would have done a hundred years ago, from a textbook, with lectures from the teaching teams designed to provide stimulation, inspiration and guidance.

They get weekly supervised group work and small-group sessions to provide support, a clear weekly schedule for marked work, reduced - but high-quality - contact time and time in the schedule for the work to be done.

All classes (apart from lectures) are compulsory and get virtually full attendance. We are now working on something to tie the whole structure together. In common with most science teaching centres, we assume that students want to be professional physicists and will train rigorously for years to do so. But they are occasionally allowed to escape from the training camp into the real world of science.

We turn out generations of students who think that science is what you learn in books. Our solution is to adopt an approach called problem-based learning. This means that students work in groups to explore real-world problems, which replace many of the routine plug-and-chug textbook exercises and laboratory practicals. This is thought to be difficult to set up in physics, and in experimental work it is, but the basic idea is simple enough.

We provide an environment where, as closely as possible, undergraduates learn in the same way that postgraduates learn and professional researchers do science. A grant from the English funding council's Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning has given us the opportunity to develop and promote this approach in physics across the UK, where, in contrast to some other countries and other disciplines, it has scarcely found a foothold.

Real-world science problems are naturally interdisciplinary, and interdisciplinarity is most readily embedded in problem-based learning.

Interdisciplinarity and problem-based learning are symbiotic.

I no longer want to suggest some changes to combined sciences: combined sciences is long gone. Instead "i-science" (i for interdisciplinary or integrated) is here, with a new enthusiasm among teaching staff right across the faculty for an entirely new science degree.

The science is interesting, relevant, research-oriented and comes with embedded employability skills. The Leicester University i-Science Centre opens to students in 2004. It has taken a devious route, a lot of lucky breaks, the support of numerous colleagues and a long time.

Derek Raine is director of the i-Science Centre, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester.

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