Creating and Engaging at WCSE 2015 – Mary Power


A week ago I attended the Western Conference on Science Education – WCSE 2015, held at Western University in London, Ontario. This biennial conference brings together people passionate about STEM education from across Canada, and beyond, for three days of learning, community and fun. I have attended all three of these WCSE conferences (the first being in 2011) and I must say this has become THE conference I look forward to. What is it about WCSE that I find so rewarding? In reality it is the whole package. It is the perfect sized conference, my guess is about 150 attendees, which is large enough to have a variety of quality presentations and posters and a diversity of participants, yet small enough to generate a community. The organizers, Tom Haffie and Ken Meadows in particular, do a marvelous job of creating a welcoming and engaging atmosphere. Having reflected on my experience at WCSE this year, and in comparing notes with other UWaterloo attendees, I’d like to share a couple key take-aways.

In her keynote talk, Dr. Kimberly Tanner from San Francisco State engaged us in a superhero card sorting activity. This low tech activity very clearly demonstrated the difference between superhero novices and experts. I was a utter novice and grouped my superheroes base on external physical features eg., wearing of capes. I didn’t have a clue as to which were Avengers or Justice League, nor frankly was I aware that those were potential groupings. Dr Tanner and her colleagues have found that it is very similar novice intuitive thinking that can result in common misconceptions of basic biological principles (Coley & Tanner, 2015). As we think about trying to address our student’s misconceptions it is valuable to remember that “… the presence of misconceptions does not indicate deficits but rather a mind actively engaged with the world trying to construct explanations for complex phenomena” (Coley & Tanner, 2015). If we can help students identify where their intuition is not based on how we understand biological processes, for example, and guide them to develop their foundation knowledge we can help them on the path toward expert thinking. Engaging students in thinking about what they know going into a lesson, what they are confused about during the lesson and what they have learned after the lesson contribute greatly to deeper learning and understanding.

Another presentation that especially stood out for me was Simon Bates’ talk “Faculty and Students as collaborators, co-creators and makers”. He talked about his work engaging students in the creation of learning objects to explain physics concepts. In his introductory physics class students generate materials (such as a video, a module, a practice exam question) to explain a concept that is troublesome to them. These are vetted by TAs and subsequently shared with the entire class. Once again, we see students actively engaged in their learning and creating materials to teach their fellow students.

Active participation of students in the education process was a common thread throughout the conference. A large number of undergraduate students participated fully in the conference, both presenting and attending the sessions. Their voices and thoughts were invariably heard in each session I was at. This involvement of the students as complete partners was one of the things that made this conference special for me.

Perhaps the growth of our universities and the resultant large classes has made it feel that it is key to break down the anonymous “us and them” that so often exists in order to find a “we” so that can embark on the learning journey together. This conference with the theme Gather + Create + Improve, highlighted the work of educators trying to actively involve their students in the making of their knowledge, went a long way in the direction of that “we”, I can’t wait for 2017! In the meantime, how do you engage your students as knowledge creators in your classes?

Intuitive Thinking and Misconceptions. Coley & Tanner. CBE – Life Sciences Education (2015). 14:1-19.

Laboratories: enhancing performance and retention – Mary Power

lab image“Active learning”, “authentic learning”, and “experiential learning” are common buzzwords in education, but are also what we try to provide our students as we aim to enable them with the required skills and knowledge for their successful entry into the “real world”. In many scientific disciplines laboratories have been an integral part of teaching and learning that attempt to provide those experiences. The combining of laboratory activities with more theoretical forms of instructions, such as lecture and discussion, has been attributed to an improvement in both attitude toward the subject matter and scientific reasoning skills (White and Frederiksen, 1998).

However, laboratory courses are extremely expensive to operate with respect to infrastructure, material, human, space and time resources and so have often become limited in the curriculum. At universities across Canada and the US, including at the University of Waterloo, many lab courses have become “un-linked” from corresponding undergraduate courses. There are of course very good reasons for doing this as large lecture courses can service a broad population and a subset of majors can occupy the expensive lab courses. From a financial perspective this all makes perfect sense. However, in some instances, including many of the courses in the Faculty of Science here at the University of Waterloo, students requiring both can enroll in the lab and lecture in different semesters. Viscerally, I have always had difficulty with this practice as I see value in the integration of the theoretical with the practical for optimal learning and as a teacher when I teach a course of both lecture and lab I can integrate the two better and interact with the students more – only practical in smaller courses of course.
A recently published large study looking at nearly 10,000 first year General Chemistry students over 5 years at the University of Michigan (Matz et al, 2012) found that concurrent enrollment in the lecture and the corresponding laboratory course positively affected lecture grades when compared to those who took the laboratory in a later term or not at all. This effect was even more pronounced for the group of weakest students, as determined by entering math and chemistry scores on the SAT test, whose grades increased by an average of a third of a letter grade (ie., B- to B). The authors also looked at withdrawal rates from the lecture and again found that the concurrent enrollment was positively linked to retention, with the odds of a concurrent student being retained being 2.2 times higher than those who took the lab separately of not at all. This was so for both the stronger and the weaker students.
The design of laboratory course in this study may have played a role a guided inquiry course where student presumably do authentic experiment and the pre-lab is not designed to “give away” the results. Much of the lab work in this course is also done in teams, which is intended to promote a collaborative, community environment. The authors hypothesize that this community factor also played an important role in their findings.
I hope more studies such as this will be done. I wonder what the data here would show us?


Matz, R., Rothman, E., Krajcik, J., &  Banaszak Holl, M. (2012). Concurrent Enrollment in Lecture and Laboratory Enhances Student Performance and Retention. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 49(5): 659-682.

White, B., &  Fredericken, J. (1998). Inquiry, modeling and metacognition: Making science accessible to all students. Cognition and Instruction. 16 (1): 3-118.