Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in STEM Education- Mahmoud A. Allam

Classroom

As part of the CUT program that I have recently completed, I was required to conduct a research project on university teaching. I decided to do my research on an effective interactive teaching/learning method. The first thought that came to my mind was to reflect on my own learning: what is the most effective way for me to learn something new? Thinking back to my undergraduate studies in Engineering, I recalled that my most enjoyable learning experience was the senior-year capstone project, where we were given a real-world problem, and we had to work in groups to come up with a design that fulfills all the project requirements. It was my first time to realize that authentic projects were not as simple as well-structured problems in textbooks. Although it was a challenging experience with all the practical obstacles that we often encountered, it was the most effective way to get hands-on experience on many concepts that we had to put together to successfully achieve our goal. Even by reflecting on my past MSc and current PhD research works, I came to realize that researchers follow almost the same approach to learn new concepts and skills to complete their research – we face a problem, we self-study and learn until we reach a solution. My conclusion after a brief research was that one of the most effective teaching/learning philosophies, especially in STEM disciplines, was “Learning by Doing”, which encompasses Project-Based Learning. So, here I started asking myself questions: can we, university teachers, embrace similar strategies in teaching most (or all) our subjects instead of limiting it to upper-year subjects? how can we gradually train our students to be independent thinkers rather than lecturing them? what frameworks do exist for this type of teaching, and how to implement them? Finally and most importantly, are these methods really effective, or is it just my personal thought/experience?

I started my research on Project-Based Learning, and surprisingly ended up researching its “sibling”, Problem-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a teaching method that was first introduced in medical education where the students work in groups to solve ill-structured, open-ended, and authentic (i.e., real-world) problems. In this approach, the whole subject is structured as a set of problems that cover different topics of the course. The instructor here acts more like a facilitator than a lecturer. He/she is primarily responsible for guiding the students rather than teaching them, while the students mostly self-teach the material. To better understand the whole process of PBL, let’s have a look at the the following chart.

When introducing a new problem in a session, the facilitator provides the problem statement to a group of learners (5-10 students), and helps them Identify the Problem. Next, the facilitator lets them brainstorm to Generate Hypotheses on the possible causes of the problem and to think about Possible Mechanisms to solve it. The learners from this point can Identify their Learning Issues (i.e., what they need to learn and how to learn it). At this point, the facilitator’s role is to make sure that the learners are on the right track, but not to identify the learning goals for them. As the session ends, the students begin their journey of exploring the available resources (e.g., textbooks, online resources … etc.) to Self Study the subject. The group of learners meet with the tutor again to Re-evaluate and Apply their New Knowledge: have they acquired enough knowledge to solve the problem? were their initial hypotheses correct and/or complete? are there more learning issues they were not aware of? Finally, the students are given a chance to Asses and Reflect on their Learning. They should give each other feedback about their contributions to learning, and evaluate the group work. The cycle is then repeated as the learners generate new hypotheses about the problem with the new acquired knowledge and skills until they finally achieve a solution, or sometimes many possible solutions. As we can see, the process does not include lectures at all; it is a fully student-centered method.

Although the original definition of PBL comprises complete “self-directedness” of learners and “ill-structuredness” of problems, instructors have often adopted different versions of PBL that better suit their subjects and teaching goals. For instance, Project-Based Learning is considered one form of PBL where problems are partially well-structured and learning is partially self-led and partially instructor-led. Other methods such as Case-Based Learning and Anchored Instruction also lie under the big umbrella of PBL. In general, PBL has gone a long way in medical education. It is, however, not often implemented in STEM disciplines even though it has proved effective by those who have applied it. I believe that the challenges associated with such an advanced method, such as the students’ resistance, shortage of resources, and lack of experience with the method, are still a burden against wider application of PBL in STEM schools. However, if we look at the other side, the potential benefits of this method can outweigh its challenges. Who wouldn’t want STEM graduates who possess highly developed communication, teamwork, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills? Who wouldn’t want self-directed students with deep and long-lasting knowledge? Who wouldn’t want learners that have acquired hands-on experience for their years of university education?

After researching the method and considering its various aspects, I went back to  reflect on my very first questions. Can we implement this philosophy in most (if not all) STEM subjects? Yes, we can; instructors have already done that in many courses at different levels. How can we teach our students to be independent learners? Just let them practice self-directed learning, but it takes patience and lots of guidance at the beginning from their instructors. What frameworks to use to attain that? We are lucky that hundreds of people have already developed, experimented, and reported numerous teaching approaches that follow the same philosophy. The PBL approach explained above is just a glimpse of one approach. All we need to do is to merely research and find the most appropriate strategy for our subjects and students. My last question was: are these methods really helpful? Well, the research results have been generally positive and encouraging in that regard. So, I have personally decided to apply some sort of PBL in my next teaching opportunity. It may take more work, but I strongly believe it is worth the extra effort.

Top image provided by Ohio University Libraries under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

Debunking the Learning Styles Myth – Crystal Tse

Photo of a person's brain outlined into aidfferent sections
Image provided by William Creswell under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

Franz Josef Gall was a neuroscientist in the 1700s who developed phrenology, a field that attributed specific mental functions to different parts of the brain (i.e., that certain bumps on a person’s head would indicate their personality traits). This field has since then been widely discredited as pseudoscience. It is often comforting to be able to categorize things and put people into neat boxes, and phrenology is one example of this tendency. Learning styles is another example.

The idea of learning styles began in the 1970s, where a growing literature and industry posited that learners have specific, individualized ways of learning the work best for them. There are many different theories of learning styles, including ones that classify people as visual, auditory, or tactile learners, or ones that outline different cognitive approaches people take in their learning.

However, there is virtually no evidence that supports that individuals have learning styles, nor that when taught in a way that “meshes” with their learning style that there is greater learning. A group of psychologists reviewed the literature and in their report on learning styles state that while there have been studies done on how individuals can certainly have preferences for learning, almost none of the studies employed rigorous research designs that would demonstrate that people benefit if they are instructed in a way that matches their learning style. In a recent study, Rogowsky and colleagues conducted an experimental test of the meshing hypothesis and found that matching the type of instruction to learning style did not make a difference on students’ comprehension of material. Furthermore, certain teaching strategies are best suited for all learners depending on the material that is being taught – learning how to make dilutions in a chemistry course, for example, requires a hands-on experiential approach, even if you have a preference to learn from reflection!

Instead of fixating on learning styles, I recommend we instead focus on engaging our learners in and outside the class (by using active learning strategies where appropriate – there is good evidence that active learning benefits learners in STEM classrooms, for example). As instructors we can also try vary our teaching methods so all students have a way into the material. Lastly, learning doesn’t always have to feel easy – research from growth mindsets shows us that feeling challenged and failure itself is important for students’ learning and growth.

Why Education is important to me – Haroon Pervez

BirdsAs I near the end of my post-secondary education, I find it fitting that I reflect on my past years at the University of Waterloo and ask “why am I doing this?” and “is it worth it?” Is the investment of pursing this abstract concept of “education” worth the headaches, stress, and doubt that comes along with it?

Though often taken for granted, elementary school and high school have taught most people how to function in everyday society. It taught us how to read, write, communicate and socialize with the people around us. It allowed us to explore (to some degree) subjects that we would learn to love or despise completely. But one thing that I have noticed, for me at least, was that it felt forced. It was something that we HAD to do, and for good reason. Yet at the end of grade 12, the pressure to pursue further education was somewhat lifted. Students now had a choice to continue to learn or just sit at home on the couch all day (something I wouldn’t advise).

I found it interesting that I felt so troubled at the idea of me wasting my time away sitting on a couch. Why was I so motivated to continue to learn and educate myself?

Mohamed Reda, in an article called “Top 10 Reasons why Education is Extremely Important”, mentions some interesting points as to why many of us dedicate so much time into continuing to educate ourselves, even after we have finished formal schooling. I won’t touch upon all the points he lists, but I’ll mention some points that resonated with me and helped me realize why I want to continue educating myself.

To start, the reason I continue to educate myself is to secure a good and happy future. To be able to do the things I want in life, I must first learn how to do them. Whether it’s wanting to become a professor or an entrepreneur, I must actively learn the necessary steps to achieve these goals. Educating myself gives me the option to choose to do what I like rather than being forced to do something else.

Education can also help when looking at finances. As the entrepreneur Tai Lopez loves to say, “the more you learn, the more you earn.” By educating myself, it opens up the possibility of me making a lot of money in the profession I choose. But even if I don’t pursue professions that make hundreds of thousands of dollars, by learning how to manage money effectively, I can still live life comfortably while doing the things I love.

Lastly, the reason why I want to continue educating myself is to bring about positive change in the world. It can be as simple as teaching others about love, equality, and respect or as complex as ending a war, by learning about these problems, it gives me the ability to act upon them. If we all follow the pattern of learning important topics, then teaching others about it in a positive manner, I believe we can change the world for the better.

Without going into too much detail, those are the main reasons that keep me motivated to continue to educate myself. With a lot of thought, I’ve realized that continuing to educate myself is worth all the trouble that comes with it.

Others may have a different ideas of why they think education is or is not important but I can confidently say that knowledge is an extremely powerful tool. You can educate yourself through formal schooling or even through the internet, there are many resources for us to access! But whether it’s learning the basic skills of how to survive as adults in the world, or finding a cure to cancer, education is key.

As you go on with your day, I challenge you to think about the reasons why you choose to continue or not continue to educate yourself! I’d love to hear about it.

Black History and the Education System – Carlton Darby

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Happy (belated) Black History Month! It’s hard for me to imagine that it’s already March when it just felt like yesterday I began my first co-op term at the Centre for Teaching Excellence. I guess time flies when you’re having fun! But as my second term of studies gets closer and closer, I reflect on my life in education, and consequently powerful quotes like this one here by Nelson Mandela. At the same time, however, I try to fathom how quickly yet another Black History Month has gone by. So with these two thoughts in my head, they come together to form the big question that many people have already asked: “Why don’t we teach more black history in our education system?”

As a young man of a Jamaican background that has received his entire education in the Canadian school system, I think about this question often and how it speaks to my experience with learning about black history in school. I vividly recall a lesson in my Grade 10 history class where we read a chapter about World War II. As I flipped through the plethora of pages that described the war, I noticed that a couple of pages were dedicated to a black Canadian soldier that made notable contributions to the war effort (I wish I could remember his name). But that was it. Only two pages of black history mentioned within the entire story of World War II. Now to be fair, since that class was a while back there could have been other parts in that textbook that mentioned black history and the history of other minorities which I may have missed, or just simply don’t remember. But I think there’s something to be said to the fact that from my Grade 10 history textbook, the only memory I have of it commemorating black history in Canada was a two-page profile on one individual.

Even when I think about black history and education on a larger scale – outside of Canada – up until this past year my knowledge only went as far as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and other widely-known black historical figures that were mentioned year after year (but my deepest respect has always gone out to these individuals and their contributions to black history). My knowledge of black history didn’t really get the opportunity to truly evolve and develop.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no historian and I’m definitely not trying to undermine the same education system that has equipped me and so many others with endless opportunities to succeed (I think that’s a misconception many people have when a topic like this is brought up). But I just think that there’s so much more students deserve to learn when it comes to how black individuals have contributed to the history that has led to present day. Did you know that African-American inventor Garrett Morgan innovated the traffic light? (Check out “Garrett Morgan”) Or that the richest man in all of history is thought to be King Musa Keita I, an African man that ruled the Mali Empire in the 14th century? (Check out “King Musa”) I just found out about King Musa last week. But there’s a sense of empowerment and enlightenment that comes along with knowing that the story of black history is much larger than we think it is – a story the precedes slavery and goes beyond the big names we always hear about.

I felt this empowerment only after reading about a couple of individuals. Imagine how a whole classroom or a whole school would feel if they regularly learned about these people in a school year? Imagine the potential that would grow inside of them, the things that they would then know they can accomplish. This same empowerment translates to the history of all minorities, for all races to benefit from.

But as good as the idea sounds to incorporate more of the history of minorities into our education system, it faces the opposition which says that there simply isn’t enough resources (ie. time, money and curriculum space) to incorporate such material. Now this is a very reasonable and fair point to make. I can definitely see how it can be a challenge to introduce any new material into a curriculum that’s already trying to work with the material that’s currently being used. But at the same time I think it’s easy to say we don’t have enough of something when the task placed before us is challenging. Consider a father whose son has a championship soccer game coming up. Now the father’s weekly schedule may make him feel justified in saying that he doesn’t have enough time to go and watch the game. But because he knows the game means so much to his son, he accommodates and makes the time to go watch his soccer game. This isn’t to say that everyone has the resources to do anything and everything regardless of how limited you are, but I think we can all agree that if you are truly passionate enough to see something happen, you will make the time and generate the resources necessary to make it happen. If we all adopted a mentality like this, think of all the amazing things we would accomplish that we never thought was possible. Why did it not seem possible before? Because we convinced ourselves that we didn’t have enough resources to accomplish the task.

Check out this CBC news report called “Teaching Black History in Canada”, as they cover the benefits and challenges an Ontario teacher faces with her new black history course.

Again, I’m no expert on the school system, but I think understanding the student perspective on issues such as this is imperative towards creating a meaningful solution. This solution won’t come overnight – it may take years of trial and error to bring a feasible plan to fruition in the classroom. But it’s important to realize – especially in 2017 – that incorporating this history into our education system not only helps us understand where we are coming from, but where we are truly going.

On the topic of music education – Anastasiya Mihaylova

Bassoon reeds in cupI could write this blog post about all the ways music is beneficial to us as learners and teachers – the positive effects it has on our standardized test performance, memory, motor, communication and analytical skills. I could continue that conversation and provide the dismal array of stats on the decline of public school funding for art programs across multiple countries and how this is a really bad idea.

Or I could talk about the real reason music is important – it is profoundly human, universal and magical and should not be defended solely because it is good for something other than simply. being. music. Continue reading On the topic of music education – Anastasiya Mihaylova

Lightboard: Mirror Magic – Mary Power

I was recently introduced to the lightboard technology and immediately I was hooked.

lightboard image
Open source hardware: http://lightboard.info

My discovery of the lightboard was timely as CTE colleague Mark Morton and I had just been discussing the mirror paradox, which is so eloquently explained in this Washington Post piece . Mirrors challenge us intellectually – oh you really do have to love physics!  Seeing a lightboard video presentation for the first time has the same effect (or did for me anyway). The first thought that went through my mind was “WOW….he can sure write backwards well!”  Watch this one minute video to see what I mean: https://youtu.be/N1I4Afti6XE.

The original Lightboard designed by Michael Peshkin, an Engineering Professor at Northwestern University, allows the creation of videos that are filmed in reflection using a mirror, resulting in the apparition of the skilled backwards writer.  Another option for creating lightboard videos is a post-production digital horizontal flip of the video. I, however, am partial to the mirror model, which in addition to having a “cool” factor allows for the video to be uploaded instantly with no post-production processing.

So whimsy aside, what is a lightboard exactly? How and why would it be useful in teaching?  In most simple terms a lightboard is an illuminated sheet of glass on which an instructor writes with fluorescent markers, as on a  whiteboard or chalkboard. The major difference is that instructor is facing the “audience”. This is absolutely an improvement on the traditional chalkboard where an instructor’s back is facing the audience when writing and often, unfortunately, while speaking. As Peshkin says ” that just gives you a little bit better sense of engagement with your students as you’re talking, and gives them a better sense that they’re being spoken to, rather than somebody just writing.”

Some might argue that these videos are too instructor focused. I would argue however that the presence of the instructor is much of what makes these videos work. In part, it is the human presence that draws the viewer in and helps develop instructor immediacy, something often difficult to attain in online and blended course videos.  The other aspect is the potential for increased learning over a traditional voice-over PPT presentation. By actually watching the physical steps taken to solve a problem, for example, and seeing the visual emphasis placed on specific steps or items learning can be enhanced. A recent study by Pi el al. confirmed this; finding that student attention and learning was significantly increased using pointing gestures in recorded video lectures over non-human (PPT animation) cues or no cues at all (Pi et al., 2016).

I truly think the lightboard technology is not a gimmick, but is rather another great instructional tool that can be used to help explain challenging concepts. I believe that this technology can be used to create rich learning opportunities for flipped, blended and online courses.

I am currently working with our audio visual studio team to determine the feasibility of building a lightboard here at the University of Waterloo. I know a number of faculty already interested in using it and studying its educational value if we build it.  I would love to hear from others interested in using this technology when we have it operational, so please get in touch.

 

ELI: 7 things you should know about Lightboard  http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7111.pdf

Northwestern Lightboard http://lightboard.info/

UBC Lightboard http://ctlt-lightboard.sites.olt.ubc.ca/

https://sites.google.com/site/northwesternlightboard/lightboards-of-the-world

Pi, Z., Hong, J. and Yang, J. (2016), Effects of the instructor’s pointing gestures on learning performance in video lectures. Br J Educ Technol. doi:10.1111/bjet.12471

 

UW STEM Education and Mobius – Paul Kates

Back in August 2016 my colleague Tonya Elliott from the Center for Extended cemc university of waterlooLearning wrote a post on Online Math Numbers at Waterloo, and Comparative Judgments as a Teaching Strategy in this space.

In that piece Tonya talked about the thousands of UW students who have taken online UW math courses and of the recognition of excellence received for the educational resources in these courses.  Today I present more information about the new online environment named Mobius first introduced there.   This platform offers authors and students expanded opportunities for rich, interactive learning.

As examples are three UW-Mobius project collaborations (CEMC, CEL) with the evolving Mobius system available free to the public:

uw open math mobius site
http://open.math.uwaterloo.ca
cemc university of waterloo
http://courseware.cemc.uwaterloo.ca

 

 

 

uw open eng mobius
http://open.engineering.uwaterloo.ca

To get a feel for what Mobius can do I’ll describe and link to specific features from each of these sites.

In the Chemistry for Engineers course you will see short (approx 5 minutes) narrated videos and animation.  Live self-check concept questions using the ordering question type let students know which part of their answers are right or wrong. Other locations in the course make use of the Maple mathematical engine underlying Mobius allowing students to check their skill at doing calculations.  These questions provide a motivating hint if students feel unsure.

The Linear Algebra1 1 Open Math site is designed differently, offering longer 20 minute presentations alternating with live quizzes.  Each quiz question has its own template for generating tens or hundreds of different question variations giving students the chance to repeat and master the material.

The example chosen from the CEMC site is an interactive demonstration of the cross product of two vectors.  On screen controls allow students to manipulate the size and orientation of two vectors while displaying the vectors and their cross product.  This is an example of a Mobius math app.  Math apps are great for letting students visualize concepts, experiment with dynamic objects and explore what-if questions.

UW has created thousands of questions for use in our Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Engineering courses.  They are all freely available to use in any course you teach.  As are the many Math apps on the Maplesoft Math app gallery page and on the Maplesoft shared content Maplecloud web site.

If you are curious about Mobius and want to learn more there is a hands-on seminar in two weeks (Thu Mar 2 11:15 AM), part of CTE’s very popular EdTech week.

You don’t have to wait two weeks though.  If you have an idea for a Math app and want help realizing it, want to browse through the question banks, want to see how a lesson is created or just want to play around with Mobius then please get in touch.

Paul Kates
Mathematics Faculty CTE Liaison
pkates@uwaterloo.ca, x37047, MC 6473