STEM for Non-STEM Majors: Enhancing Science Literacy in Large Classes

Article excerpt

Educating the next generation of scientists is something college science educators think about every day. Developing science literacy among nonscience majors seems to get far less attention, but it may be just as important to future scientific developments.

In addition to its economic benefits, broader science literacy is becoming increasingly important for the vitality of democracy. Miller (2004), citing results from a number of studies funded by the National Science Foundation, noted that public science literacy is under 20%, a particular concern when it comes to public understanding of critical science-based policy issues ranging from global warming to stem cell research (Miller, 1998).

One of the goals of the National Science Foundation (2006) is to "expand the scientific literacy of all citizens" (p. 5). The importance of this goal has been stressed by a number of national agencies, policy makers, and corporate leaders in recognition of the need for increased knowledge and understanding of the basic principles and methods of science, technology, and math (STEM) among all undergraduates if they are to be successful in an increasingly technological and global economy (Fox & Hackerman, 2003). Undergraduates in STEM and non-STEM disciplines alike will "require solid foundations in science and math in order to be productive and capable members of our Nation's society" (National Science Board, 2006, p. 2).

Undergraduate science courses appear to play a critical role in developing science literacy among non-STEM college students (Miller, 2007). An ongoing challenge for those who teach undergraduate STEM courses for non-STEM majors is how to make the courses more effective given limited budgets and large class sizes.

A number of techniques have recently been recommended for improving science education in large-class settings. Wireless classroom responses systems ("clickers") allow students to respond electronically to questions posed by the instructor, providing an opportunity for greater interaction and participation in large classes. A number of researchers have reported success with clickers in enhancing interactive teaching strategies (Beatty, Gerace, Leonard, & Dufresne, 2006; Burnstein & Lederman, 2001, 2003, 2007; Kay & LeSage, 2009; Reay, Bao, Warnakulasooriya, & Baugh, 2005; Reay, Li, & Bao, 2008). Guided inquiry and active learning are well recognized as successful educational strategies but can be difficult to implement in large-class settings. POGIL (process oriented guided inquiry learning) is an active-learning strategy that has been proven effective in small classes but is also being adapted for use in large classes (Amaral et al., 2005; Gill, 2011; Yezierski et al., 2008).

The work evaluated here is an application of both clickers and POGIL, as well as a focused science-literacy orientation, in an applied science course for non-STEM undergraduates taught in a lecture-hall setting. The effectiveness of these interventions in improving science literacy of students was evaluated using a variety of objective and self-assessed evaluation instruments.

Course and science literacy objectives

Environmental Health in the 21st Century is an undergraduate general education elective at a large (21,000 enrollment) state university in the Midwest. It meets an applied science requirement within general education and is taken by over 800 students per year. Students representing every major on campus have taken the course, though enrollment tends to be dominated by nonscience majors.

Sections of the course typically contain 100 or more students and are taught in large lecture halls with computer projection equipment for the display of content, images, and video. The sections evaluated in this research met twice per week for 75 minutes.

Many definitions of science literacy have been proposed, but a definition that is particularly relevant to our applied science course is from Project 2061, an initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Nelson, 1999):

Science literacy consists of knowledge of certain important scientific facts, concepts, and theories; the exercise of scientific habits of mind; and an understanding of the nature of science, its connections to mathematics and technology, its impact on individuals, and its role in society. …