Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Reenvisioning the Introductory Science Course as a Cognitive Apprenticeship

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Reenvisioning the Introductory Science Course as a Cognitive Apprenticeship

Article excerpt

Introductory undergraduate science courses are a critical juncture for students considering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors and have been the focal point for science education reform (Brewer & Smith, 2011). Ideally, the laboratory aspect of introductory science courses gives students an opportunity to learn and practice important skills, reinforce knowledge of lecture concepts, and understand scientific investigation (Hofman & Lunetta, 2002); however, many introductory undergraduate laboratory classes are a series of "cookbook laboratories" that are not well integrated into the course (Handlesman et al., 2004). As first-year science courses are gateways for potential STEM majors, it is useful to consider a few key questions. How can we design first-year courses to show connections between the fundamental content covered in lecture and the process covered in the laboratory? How can we structure these courses so students in them learn and practice important specific laboratory techniques and also develop broader scientific thinking skills?

Conceptual framework

Induction into the scientific community shares many characteristics of an apprenticeship (Sadler, Burgin, McKinney, & Ponjuan, 2010). This apprenticeship engages participants in authentic activities and practices in the domain (Lave & Wenger, 1991). A cognitive apprenticeship is a "learning-through-guided experience on cognitive and metacognitive, rather than physical, skills and processes" (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989, as cited in Dennen & Burner, 2008, p. 427). Students not only learn what to do, they learn how to think about what they are doing by having ongoing feedback from more experienced instructors. Students are given multiple opportunities to engage with the material they are learning in a context-rich environment (Hendricks, 2001). Cognitive apprenticeships begin by modeling how an expert would approach the material. Students receive coaching in the form of feedback and advice, and the instructor provides scaffolding to help students learn, asks students to articulate their learning process, and encourages students to reflect on what they have learned. As students gain understanding of the topic, they are given less structure and more opportunities to explore and apply their knowledge on their own (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991; Dennen & Burner, 2008). We designed this course with these ideas in mind, incorporating the modeling, coaching, articulation, reflection, and application of their understandings during the course. The course is both an actual apprenticeship, in that students practice laboratory skills and processes, and a cognitive apprenticeship where students learn how to think metacognitively about the larger context of the experiment.

Course description

Designed for potential neuroscience majors, Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology (abbreviated NE for its focus on neuroscience) covers such fundamental concepts as DNA replication; translating genes into proteins; and how the cell regulates key processes such as mitosis, membrane synthesis, and transport. The lecture component of NE covers the standard complement of cellular and molecular biology topics seen in the majority of introductory biology courses (Table 1). The syllabus is available in the supplemental materials (http://www. nsta.org/college/connections.aspx).

Learning skills in context is an important aspect of apprenticeships. In this course, the skills and experiments in the laboratory are nested within the context of the series of laboratory experiments. Lecture and laboratory are thoroughly intertwined, and lab exercises are a direct application of each week's lecture content. The seamless integration of lab and lecture has been linked to student learning of content and process, and student motivation (Burrowes & Nazario, 2008). Adding the cognitive apprenticeship approach provides a framework that helps instructors create positive learning environments for students. …

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