STEM Institute encouraging degrees in science

Nicolas Olivera/The Beacon

Nicholas Olivera, Staff Writer

Using two separate grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, FIU’s STEM Transformation Institute has been working to encourage the completion of degrees in the sciences.

Since 2010, the STEM institute had been going about this process by putting the money from the first HHMI grant of $1 million towards developing more creative, interactive processes in order to get students excited about science.

With the first HHMI grant, the institute funded efforts for each professor in specific STEM disciplines to transform one of their courses to fit the newer, more exciting mold to attract students to the sciences.

The second HHMI grant of $1.5 million works towards boosting the encouragement of students in chemistry, physics, biology and now mathematics courses. The grant’s money goes towards supporting members of the STEM faculty who are willing to transform their traditional lectures in order to appeal more to students.

Science faculty lower the number of classes they would normally teach during the summer in order focus their attention on attending workshops at the Center of Advanced Teaching. These workshops give them an understanding on how to properly implement these more exciting methods of teaching.

The teachers attending these workshops are given summer salaries that are funded by the HHMI’s grant to account for teaching less summer classes,

“That transition can be difficult if you have a faculty member that has been teaching a certain way for a long time,” said Rocio Benabentos, assistant director of HHMI science education grant for FIU. “hanging to more effective strategies can be very time consuming so we want to support that transition.”

Developing these new, exciting methods for teaching meant doing away with the traditional method for teaching—having students come in for a straightforward lecture before going off on their own to figure out what it was they just sat through.

According to Laird Kramer, physics professor and director of the STEM institute, this traditional teaching process is one that tends to discourage university students from pursuing degrees in science.

“If you take a typical physics course, your favorable attitudes towards physics learning will be decreased as a result of the instruction. A simple lecture becomes very dry, and to me that’s not what physics is about,” Kramer said.

The common change professors have been making to their courses is flipping them. This means that all lectures and power points (or any sort of instructional materials) will be available to students online.

Before showing up to class, the students will review whatever it is their professor had assigned to them. This allows students to go into the classroom with a general understanding of what the lesson is, and they can address any difficulties they already know they have with a professor or a learning assistant present.

An example of this “flipped” concept is seen in John Makemson’s general biochemistry class.

It appears to be a typical lecture: He stands in between a projector screen twice his height and an auditorium containing close to 200 students. Today’s class is a lecture on urea cycle disorders.

He will present a series of questions to his students, such as, what amino acid group does the amino ornithine belong to? The question will be up on the screen behind him, followed by five possible answers labeled A through E. The students have exactly one minute to answer correctly.

A majority of them will sit in tight clusters, each holding an iClicker device. For each question that comes up the students will always end up consulting the person sitting next to them in an attempt to figure out what the answer is.

For the students, these questions are all important. Not only because it is a quick refresher for upcoming class exams, but also because the in-class questions will be graded.

“It’s a good buzz in the class. When students are talking to students, the students are doing the teaching for themselves. And attendance hasn’t been stronger too,” Makemson said.


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