Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

What Makes Science Relevant?: Student Perceptions of Multimedia Case Learning in Ecology and Health

Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

What Makes Science Relevant?: Student Perceptions of Multimedia Case Learning in Ecology and Health

Article excerpt


The perception of science as boring is a major issue for teachers at all instructional levels. Tertiary classes especially suffer from a reputation for being dry, instructor-centered, and irrelevant to the lives of students. However, previous research has shown that science can be interesting to students if it is presented in such a manner as to generate personal curiosity and interest. This study explored the efficacy of two multimedia, case-based approaches to develop interest and perceptions of relevance in an introductory biology class. One of these approaches enabled students to test hypotheses about wolf ecology using radio telemetry data, while the other enabled them to play the role of a geneticist testing for genetic and infectious disease conditions. After completing both projects, 32 students volunteered to participate in one of four video-recorded focus interview groups to determine what non-majors in an introductory biology course think is relevant science to learn and why. Twelve trends in student views on relevance, the most important of which were potential use, curiosity, global relevance, and human relevance emerged from this study. Students preferred both case-based projects to lecture, and liked the project on human health better than the case project on wolf ecology. This research contributes significantly to understanding how personal curiosity and relevance motivate students in science classrooms.

KEY WORDS: Case-based instruction, relevance, science education, student motivation, undergraduate education.

"Why are we studying this?" is a question most science professors have heard. A major failing of the lecture approach to science education is the perceived lack of relevance to the everyday world by students (Aikenhead, 2006, 2007). College students often find science unexciting, disengaging, poorly taught, and difficult to relate to (McManus, 2001; McConnell et al., 2003; Schreiner & Sjøberg, 2004; McConnell et al., 2005). Furthermore, when science is taught by traditional lecture methods, students retain little of the information presented long-term , and there is little comprehension of unifying themes or ideas (Dale, 1969; McDonald & Dominguez, 2005; Lord, 2007; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997; Aikenhead, 2006).

Numerous authors have argued that science must become more socio-culturally relevant and authentic so that students can relate information directly to both their own lives and their cultural perspectives (MacIvor, 1995; Aikenhead, 1996, 2001, 2002; Barton et al., 2005; Stears & Malcolm, 2005; Roth & Barton 2004). However, even the word "relevance" is ambiguous in that educators have not reached consensus on its meaning, and this lack of common definition leads to misunderstandings. Mayoh & Knutton (1997) assert that two dimensions of relevancy must be considered when developing pedagogy and determining content: (a) relevant to whom?, and (b) relevant to what? Aikenhead (2006) identified seven different types of science relevance related to public education. Several of these pertain to this study: 1) need-to-know science, that is resolving real-life problems related to science, 2) functional science, e.g., people in science-based occupations needing info for their jobs, and 3) personal curiosity science, that is wondering how something works. Of the seven kinds, one of the most important for educators to understand is personal curiosity science since this can be a driving motivational factor in science classrooms (Kortland, 2001; Aikenhead, 2006). Even though students may not be innately curious about a topic, instructors can stimulate students' curiosity through instructional methods. Knowing how to stimulate students' curiosity in science allows instructors to chose topics and instructional methods that motivate students' learning.

When students become curious about a topic, they view it as more relevant to their lives and become more motivated to learn. …

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