Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Implementation of Interactive Engagement Teaching Methods in a Physical Oceanography Course

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Implementation of Interactive Engagement Teaching Methods in a Physical Oceanography Course

Article excerpt

For more than 2 decades, many scientific groups have promoted reform in science education that is centered on active learning strategies that engage students in the process of science (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). Ample evidence shows that integrating lectures with active learning exercises or integrating lecture and lab improves learning and retention (Handelsman et al., 2004; Powell, 2003). Enhanced learning using these strategies has been documented in physics (Hake, 1998; Hoellwarth, Moelter, & Knight, 2005), chemistry (Wampold et al., 1998), engineering (Benson et al., 2010), biology (Udovic, Morris, Dickman, Postlethwait, & Wetherwax, 2002), zoology, and botany (Burrowes & Nazario, 2008). In this article, we describe the application of a pedagogical technique that was successful in physics to another scientific discipline, physical oceanography.

The Marine Science program at Coastal Carolina University (CCU) is one of the largest in the Eastern United States. Students in the program are required to complete yearlong sequences in biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus. In addition, students must complete a semester-long course in each subdiscipline of marine science: marine biology, marine geology, marine chemistry, and physical oceanography. The Physical Oceanography course is taught in 2-3 sections a year, each with 30-40 students. This course is taken after the completion of physics and calculus; therefore, the vast majority of students enroll in the course in their final year of college, many in their final semester. Historically, the course was taught using a standard lecture-laboratory format. Students would listen to 3 hours of lecture per week and then meet in smaller groups for separate labs. The lectures contained material designed to inform and interest the students, but they were not specifically designed to elicit interactions with them.

The students in the studied Physical Oceanography sections (67% women, 3% minority) have diverse interests and abilities. Evidence from previous math and physics grades suggests that many students come into the class with weak math and problem-solving skills. Only a few are oriented toward physical oceanography as a career path; departmental surveys indicate that most students are planning on careers in marine biology, marine chemistry, geology, or environmental science. Therefore, the overall goal of this course is to give these future nonphysical oceanographers the knowledge and skills that they need to apply to their chosen area.

Department graduation requirements mandate a C or better in Physical Oceanography; however, over the preceding 5 years, 16% of the students taking the course had received Ds or Fs, and the combined DWF (drop, withdraw, fail) rate was 20%. Although such large nonsuccess rates may not be unusual (albeit troubling) for introductory courses, Physical Oceanography is an upper level course comprised of over 95% seniors. These students could not graduate until the course was retaken and completed successfully. Such a failure rate was also problematic because of what it revealed about student learning in the course. The evidence suggested that the average physical oceanography student needed more support than a traditional lecture-lab environment could provide.

From our evaluation of the failing students, it was evident that they did not have an adequate grasp of the main physical concepts and lacked mastery of important process skills such as problem solving. Students often had a practiced reliance on the memorization of descriptive statements instead of being able to explain the physical causes of behavior. This may have worked for them in other, less-analytical classes but was insufficient in an environment where higher order thinking skills were required. For example, when learning about basic static fluids, students often had trouble distinguishing pressure from force and understanding concepts such as pressure in a closed container, buoyancy as a force, and what determines sinking and floating behavior. …

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