Science classrooms get a makeover

David Nero is flipping a space this fall, but it isn’t a house. It’s his classroom, and it’s not in the way you’re thinking. 

Nero and other professors at Pitt are swapping the traditional sequence of instruction to help students better learn the material. In a “flipped classroom,” students learn new concepts at home — often through online lectures — and work on homework and other problems in class with an instructor’s help. 

While many humanities professors have adopted this approach, so, for example, students don’t waste class time reading a novel, professors of science and math courses usually devote class time to presenting new information. 

Nero, a physics lecturer at Pitt, said physics educators have long been thinking about flipping their classes. Pitt’s department of physics and astronomy approached him this spring about flipping his fall class as an experiment. “It’s not that the traditional lecture doesn’t work — we know that it works,” Nero said. “But can we do something better? Research says yes.” 

A study by San Jose State University found that a flipped engineering course in 2012 resulted in improved grades, which had been notably low in the past.

Additionally, a review of the research on flipped teaching presented at the 120th American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition last June said student responded positively, with few dislikes.

Nero will soon be able to judge flipped teaching for himself. The Discipline Based Science Education Research Center, a new initiative of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences created to improve the teaching of the natural sciences, paid for video recording equipment and class development tools for Nero’s class.

To prepare for his fall class, Nero said he’ll reorganize his video lectures into blocks that focus on one topic for a few minutes each, record himself writing on PowerPoint slides using screen-capture technology and voice over the video with a lecture. The recording process will take about 120 hours, he said. 

Before class, Nero will instruct students to watch the videos on CourseWeb and take short concept quizzes online. Then, in class, Nero will review the topics students struggled with on their concept quizzes, demonstrations and group problems.  

“The students’ workload is the same,” he said. “The timing is different.”

A way to modify the flipped classroom model to fit a small budget is to flip only a portion of a course. 

Lance Davidson and Carsten Stuckenholz won a 2013 Innovation in Educational Excellence Award from the Office of the Provost for a project that examined flipping an introductory cell biology course that they both taught. The pair had been open to altering the approach to the course, Davidson said, and first learned about flipping at an engineering seminar in 2012.

“[Flipping] was a lot like what we wanted to do,” Davidson said.

From his experience, Davidson said teaching an experimentally based class entirely in lectures isn’t the best way to teach and prefers to teach using  the trial-and-error aspect of scientific discovery. 

“The key to cell biology is [learning] how to be analytical and realize that perhaps the information you have is insufficient,” he said.

Davidson and Stuckenholz didn’t use the flipped method for the entire semester like Nero, but instead for six lectures.The pair didn’t require any additional funding for their original flipped lectures. 

To flip parts of the course, Davidson and Stuckenholz distilled their lectures to their essential components and wrote scripts for video lectures of 10-15 minutes each. Students would press a button during the lecture if they were confused and write their questions in a Google document that automatically opened up on the screen, which the professors then read and addressed later in class. 

During class, students broke into groups of three or four and worked on the kind of real-world problems they would see in their future jobs as potential doctors or biologists. For example, Davidson said he gave students problems with insufficient information to teach them to ask more questions.

Davidson removed unncessary details from the material to instead focus on specific concepts, which he said improved his teaching skills more than his yearly refinement of lecture notes ever did. 

Davidson said it was difficult to objectively measure the immediate impact of flipping the classroom, and his first round of exams showed no improvement from previous years. He’d like to flip more lectures in the future, but admitted that “it’s a heck of a lot of work.” 

“The resources of the University would be stretched thin if everyone did this at the same time,” Davidson said.

Not every class at Pitt can be flipped, though.

John Chadam, a mathematics professor at Pitt, said he thinks it will be very difficult to flip the classroom completely, at least in his department, for logistic reasons. Triple-digit class sizes don’t lend themselves well to this approach, he said and reducing them just for this purpose will overstrain the budget.

In his two sections of Calculus 1 in the fall, Chadam will use a hybrid version of the flipped classroom method. This method will differ mostly in that during class, and he will “enrich the lecture,” he said, by interactively doing more real-world problems on the board instead of just lecturing through them.  

Instead of recording his own lectures for students to watch at home, Chadam said he will pick the best of online lectures open to the public — by culling sources ranging from the Khan Academy, a non-profit educational website, to MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“The students now are different than they were 15 years ago,” Chadam said. “This is the way it’s going.”