by Carolyn Sparrey, Mechanical Engineering
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007
Engineering students are some of the most adept memorizers on the Berkeley campus. The sheer volume of information presented to students during classes and lectures often leads students to memorize material and worry about understanding it later. By the time the students arrived in my discussion section they were only looking to me to map out sample problems from which they could memorize the method and the solution, often without considering the physical meaning and implications of the problem.
As a first time GSI I attended a 301 lecture once a week to learn about teaching methods and common issues in the classroom. Early in the term I was assigned to present a lecture to the class about learning theories and the stages of development within students. It was through my research for this presentation that I came across the concept of the Scientific Learning Cycle. What the theory proposed was that students would better understand and retain concepts if they were allowed to explore the phenomena or idea on their own and then be guided by their teacher to assign correct terminology and theory to their observations.
I decided to give this a try on a particularly complex phenomenon called viscoelasticity, which describes how soft biological tissues respond to motions of the body. Due to the restrictions of the classroom I could not simply bring in tissue for the students to experiment with. Rather, I needed something tissue-like but without the mess and, because I was supplying the materials myself, at minimal cost. The solution was chewing gum.
At the beginning of the discussion section each student was given a piece of gum and directed only to “explore” the behavior of the gum. As students began blowing bubbles, popping them, stretching the gum and twirling it around their fingers, we started assigning the appropriate language to each motion. Blowing a bubble using constant effort (the bubble kept growing) was “creep.” Blowing a small bubble quickly so it broke as opposed to slowly blowing a large bubble showed “rate dependence.” We progressed through the remainder of the theory in the same way. The third stage of the scientific learning cycle is to take the theory and apply it to a new problem. The last portion of the discussion section involved an interactive discussion on how to use viscoelastic theory to account for different ligament injuries in the knee.
Throughout the remainder of the term the students and I continued to explore concepts using the scientific learning cycle. Concepts that could be explored physically were, and those that were more abstract were explored through the presentation of new mathematical expressions in which the students explored and discussed the meaning of each term in the expression among themselves before I presented the formal terminology.
I used several things to gauge the students’ responses to this teaching approach. First, following the introduction of the active examples and scientific learning cycle, attendance at discussion sections increased for the remainder of the term. Second, through an informal midterm evaluation the students indicated that they enjoyed the scientific learning cycle, particularly the physical experiments and replications. I truly felt successful though when, late in the term, I observed the interactions of two students working on a class project. One was using the scientific learning cycle and a physical example we had previously discussed to illustrate a new, complicated theorem to her classmate.