A Professional Development Teaching Course for Science Graduate Students: An Innovative Course at the University of Hawaii Provides Future Science Professors with Professional Development in Effective Science Teaching

By Baumgartner, Erin | Journal of College Science Teaching, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

A Professional Development Teaching Course for Science Graduate Students: An Innovative Course at the University of Hawaii Provides Future Science Professors with Professional Development in Effective Science Teaching


Baumgartner, Erin, Journal of College Science Teaching


Although the majority of the teaching faculty at U.S. universities is composed of people who are scientific experts, research has found that most scientists do not have information about effective teaching methods (DeHaan 2005). Traditional lecture-style college science teaching does not reflect knowledge about best teaching practices based upon research about teaching and learning (AAAS 1990). Ironically, the large lecture courses with their step-by-step cookbook laboratories in place at many universities and colleges have been suggested by some to be counterproductive to developing the real-world problem-solving strategies valued by professional scientists (Herreid 2001).

The structure of such traditional teaching practices poses a challenge to effective undergraduate instruction in science. In the late 1990s, studies found that over 50% of both minority and majority students entering college intending to major in fields in the natural sciences change their stated focus within two years of taking their first college science class (Seymour and Hewitt 1997). The negative experience created by traditional-style science courses may be a part of this phenomenon. In a control-comparison study of students in a laboratory science course, Lord and Orkwiszewski (2006) found that students in an inquiry-based lab course reported significantly greater positive attitudes about science, although their content knowledge did not significantly change compared to that of their peers in a traditional laboratory course. Beyond the issues of recruitment and retention, effective instruction in science is also needed for the majority of students in introductory science courses who are nonmajors (Bishop 2002). These students, who may not take more than one required biology course, for example, still need to gain basic understandings of the practical issues related to their environment that affect their lives (Hurd 2006).

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Disconnects between types of learning experiences in K-12 and undergraduate science classrooms and a lack of awareness of current instructional research also decrease the effectiveness of undergraduate science education (NSTA 2000). McIntosh (2000) suggests that college teachers need to recognize that they are affected by reform initiatives because they are part of the team of science instructors spanning the educational experience of students from kindergarten through college.

The modeling of scientific thinking and inquiry for students should be easily accomplished by researchers, who engage in such thinking every day. The challenge is in effectively translating that thinking into the classroom setting, facilitating rather than directing learning. Many university and college instructors who were effectively trained to engage in scientific research find shifting to a learner-centered teaching model difficult (Glasson and McKenzie 1997).

One possible solution to the challenge of effective science instruction at colleges and universities is to provide professional development in effective instruction to the next generation of the professoriate. Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), while focusing on their training as researchers, are being asked to effectively instruct undergraduates. Many undergraduates spend more time and connect more directly with GTAs than professors. In a comprehensive study of 158 U.S. colleges and universities, Sundber, Armstrong, and Wischusen (2005) found that 91% of the biology laboratory instruction at research universities and 71% at comprehensive universities was provided by GTAs. Most universities have training programs or centers devoted to providing professional development for GTAs, but even the best GTA training programs are often very generalized to a variety of disciplines across campus (Luft et al. 2004). Effective science instruction calls for generalized teaching skills, as well as a host of very specific strategies targeted to enhancing students' scientific literacy and understanding of the nature of science. …

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