Mark Schneider: Hi, I’m Mark Schneider and you’re listening to Shifting Conversations, a podcast series dedicated to dialogue and change in higher education. In today’s episode, I’ll be engaging in conversation with Anna Stokke, and Dietmar Kennepohl about STEM literacy. We’re going to discuss the importance of STEM literacy strategies to relieve stem anxiety, best methods for teaching math and science, the evolution of STEM teaching, and many other topics. Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge that this podcast was recorded in Alberta. Dietmar, Anna and I honour and acknowledge that this land is Treaty Six territory. We seek to learn from history and the lessons that have come before us and draw on the wisdom of the first peoples in Canada. Only through learning can we move forward in truth and reconciliation and to a better future together.
Mark: Hi, everybody, my name is Mark Schneider. I work at NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology). I teach mathematics and computers and have been doing so at night for just over 10 years. I am welcoming everybody to the conversation here today about STEM literacy and I’m going to invite my colleagues to introduce themselves.
Anna Stokke: Hello, I’m Anna Stokke. I’m a mathematician, and I’m a math professor at the University of Winnipeg.
Dietmar Kennepohl: Hi, I’m Dietmar Kennepohl. I’m glad to be here with two mathematicians. And I’m the odd person out I’m a chemistry professor at Athabasca University in Alberta. And Athabasca University is an Open University. It’s 100% online and at a distance. And I’m looking forward to our great conversation that we’re going to have.
Anna: Dietmar, I have a question for you.
Dietmar: Okay, go right ahead.
Anna: What is STEM literacy? And why is it important?
Dietmar: Well, excellent question. Maybe first I should explain what STEM is. S.T.E.M. is science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And the answer isn’t quite that easy, because there are different definitions. But one that I really like is the ability to engage with STEM related issues and the ideas of science as a reflective citizen, which I thought was really great. Now, I have to confess that I’m biased, because I’m a chemist. And so sometimes I will, instead of saying STEM, I will say science, but I kind of mean the whole package. And I have to be careful because today I’m talking with two mathematicians. And so, when I say science, I hope you will forgive me, I realised that each discipline there is separate, but they are kind of like the rings on the Olympic flag where the rings kind of link and connect with each other. And there’s a little bit of overlap between all these disciplines. So, we kind of put them together. But you know, that ability to engage with science related issues, I mean, incorporates a whole number of things like written numeric and digital literacy. It pulls in things that we’re interested in as educators, you know, problem solving, critical thinking, reasoning, logic, and so on. And so, it’s difficult to kind of pin it down exactly what it is. But sometimes it’s easier to kind of define what it’s not. And one of the things it’s not, it’s not about being an expert. So, when we talk about STEM literacy, we’re talking about pulling together some knowledge and kind of familiarity with STEM disciplines, but not as an expert. So that could be as you know, the general public, or what we’re interested about is, is the students that we’re teaching that they have some science background. So that’s how I would kind of define STEM literacy.
Anna: Sure, and you can certainly use science and we know that you mean math too, because math is kind of at the root of all the sciences. So, following up on that, Mark, what do you think are some negative consequences of STEM illiteracy?
Mark: Well, I think the important thing to discuss when we talk about STEM literacy and negative consequences of STEM illiteracy, would be to first identify that there is there’s a really strong correlation between STEM literacy and really just our strong critical thinking skills. So, you know, as a classic example, a mathematician might look at something and say, you know, a forwards to backwards strategy for solving a problem. We can use that strategy to enhance our own day to day tasks, like being able to delegate tasks to team members, oftentimes gets associated with sort of a forwards to backwards thinking, who’s going to start the task, who’s going to end the task, etc. And it can even help This really connects some of our ideas in written communications. Some of the one of the examples that I like to use is as an undergraduate, one of the things I didn’t really gain an appreciation for was writing until I really became strongly proficient in mathematics and really built up a really strong foundation of STEM literacy. And essentially what that did was my appreciation for STEM literacy gave cause to better writing and more effective written communication. And I think, to think about the negative consequences of STEM literacy (meant to say STEM illiteracy). Well, if we don’t have STEM literacy, I think it’s very easy for things to get misinterpreted, and really be taken completely out of context, things are left in total disarray with regards to organisation, and delegation of tasks, etc. And I really think that the stronghold, if you would, of STEM literacy is focused on improving communication, by ensuring that your thoughts are concise, and they’re logical, and very coherent.
Dietmar: So, one of the things that has been on my mind and seeing is today, I have two mathematicians with me, and I’ll start off with Anna, kind of looking at some of the barriers to STEM literacy. So, you know, as a mathematician, what do you see some of the barriers to student success? And math?
Anna: Well, I think there are quite a few things that that we could discuss on that. But I’ll sort of identify three that I think are main barriers to success in math. And the first one would be that math is a really cumulative subject, probably more so than almost any other subject. So, for instance, in order to solve an algebraic equation, you need to be fluent with fractions. And in order to be fluent with fractions, you need to know your times tables, and you can kind of trace concepts and math back like this. And so, I think a lot of times, what happens is that students fall behind and one of those important concepts really early on, and it holds them back when they’re trying to learn concepts later, because they can’t possibly have success and learning later concept if they didn’t master the techniques that came before it. So, I think that’s a really, that’s a really major issue. The other thing is that I think there’s a commonly held belief in society that some people are just naturally good at math, while others are not. And there’s really no evidence that this is true. But I think that when people get this idea in their head, this also really holds them back. And you know, the other thing is that math is often not taught well, particularly in in K to eight, where the foundation is being laid for learning later math. And there’s a few reasons for this. One is just effective instructional practices aren’t always used. So, for instance, the cognitive science, which tells us the best methods, methods for teaching math are often not known or ignored. And this hold students back. And then the other thing I would say, though, is that a lot of K to eight teachers themselves are quite uncomfortable with the math that they’re teaching, they may feel anxious about it, they may not like math, or they may not even understand some of the topics. And this isn’t good for students, right. And so, this because of the cumulative nature of mathematics, if they’re not getting a good foundation in K to eight, they’re going to struggle later on. And that is happening a lot. And so, I think a lot of times, you know, students, I don’t even see some of those students that maybe I would otherwise if they received good instruction in K to eight, they’re shut out quite early on.
Mark: So Dietmar, given that Anna’s outlines some of these barriers to success in mathematics, I turn the question back to you and, and that being what do you see as some of the barriers that are inhibiting success in science specifically?
Dietmar: Well, first of all, I have to say that I see a lot of parallels to mathematics. And in fact, I’ve complained about this quite often. I think I probably even mentioned it to you earlier before that, often, it’s math and numeracy that is a problem when students, when I see students coming in to chemistry, so general chemistry, kind of as a first step at university chemistry course that you might take, a lot of the problems that students have isn’t about chemistry, it’s about some basic mathematical skills that they’re lacking. And so that’s quite a challenge. I would say, one of the things, that we’re getting more awareness of and this was kind of led by the physicists in science, and in that is around the whole idea of misconceptions that students have when they come in. So, it’s not just that they’re missing pieces, but they’ve miss-learned or they’ve misinterpreted things. So, you’re not only having to teach them but unteach things and that can be quite a challenge to do. And so, physicists, and now the chemists have followed and others to are doing these concept inventories. And I remember one of the early papers that came out in physics, they actually showed that students had negative learning throughout the term that they actually knew less on their post exam than they did on the pre-exam. And so, there are ways of handling that, but it’s certainly a barrier to learning science is there are misconceptions. And finally, I’d like to kind of just talk about participation rates, they’re quite low in science. Now, around the world, a lot of that has to do with just access to formal education and access to science education. But in the Western world, we still have low participation rates. And it seems to be that students are going into other disciplines preferentially, like law, or medicine, or business. And science doesn’t seem to be fun or sexy. Well, Sheila Tobias put it in a in a great way. She said that the problem with science is that it’s too many scales and not enough music. And so I’ve always liked that saying, so part of it is just the image that we have, but it always has me thinking, are there ways you know that we can address that ourselves? Because we’re in the biz?
Anna: Sure. So Mark, what do you think some other barriers to success in STEM subjects might be?
Mark: Well, I think that first and foremost, some of the other barriers that I that identify really fall from some of the barriers that you’ve already mentioned, for us, the cumulative nature, definitely that the myth that some people maybe are great at math, and others maybe are not. But the follow up from some of those I think are much bigger and much grander. And certainly, one of the other barriers, I think, is intimidation in the subject. A lot of students, I think, get intimidated when they see that first year calculus course in university. In some cases, they go into it with a great feeling of non-confidence. And in some cases, it’s really just what I would chalk up as a history of unfortunate experiences. If they’ve gone through K to 12 education and entered that first year calculus course, with a lack of confidence, and perhaps some, some abysmal grades here and there. And they’re just worried that they’re not going to be able to get their feet underneath them and get going early. So certainly, intimidation from the subject can certainly be a big component. And again, that kind of plays into that cumulative nature it is mathematics is a big beast that kind of wraps around itself many times. And for some students, they think they almost have to start over right from square one again, in order to grasp a concept. The other one is really numeracy issues. We live in a very different world than we did even 10,15 years ago, we had to memorise people’s phone numbers, and now they’re just programmed into our contacts list. So, we’ve as a society kind of became less dependent on numeracy and our numeracy skills. And I think we’re starting to really see that in STEM education today, where students are mixing up numbers, and they’re seeing 2.3 versus 23. And in some cases, they get so caught up in numbers, that they’re, they’re unable to detach from the numbers themselves to make sense of their answers. So, you know, I was grading papers the other day, and it was just a scale tape problem that involved the diameter of a staircase. And essentially, students need to look at a blueprint and determine the size of the staircase in real life. And I had some students that were specifying answers for a diameter of an actual wrapped around staircase that was like 2.3 centimetres in diameter, and others that were specifying the answers that were like 2.8 times 10 to the 23 kilometres in diameter, and they’re unable to detach thinking, Is that realistic? Can they have a staircase that that that is that small, or that large in real life, because they get caught up in in their numeracy problems. And I think the big one that is often refer to when we talk about STEM literacy, and some barriers is anxiety, certainly in mathematics, and I think we see this in other sciences as well is, there’s a lot of anxiety triggered, and sometimes what happens is, the student becomes too closely attached to the memorization of a process. And when the numbers change just a little bit. They have a really great difficult time, sort of getting their feet underneath them, and picking that problem up and tackling it.
Mark: Okay, so now looking back at some of these barriers, I’m going to maybe turn this conversation over to both either Anna or Dietmar. And really, maybe we’ll have a good, focused conversation here on how the evolution of teaching has maybe either helped or hindered some of these barriers in establishing STEM literacy.
Dietmar: One thing that strikes me I mean, historically, you know, we’re living in a world now of ubiquitous knowledge. And so, a lot of our colleagues are having discussions on what is the role of the teacher in a world, where you have instant connectedness, and you can connect to both people and resources at any time? What is the role of the teacher? And I think in the in the STEM disciplines, it’s no different, possibly even moving faster because we deal with a lot of information and data, and research and so on. And what science education looked like, let’s say in the middle of the last century, as compared to now is quite a bit different. And so, our role has become less about being the holder of content, and more about being that coach or mentor. And to be frank, I think, you know, the really good teachers always really didn’t know that. But I think now everyone is realising that their approach to teaching science is less about what is actually happening at the moment and the content, and more about methodology, and approach, and attitude. And I think that has been a real game changer is just the whole explosion of knowledge.
Anna: So, I’ll say a few words about that, in terms of the evolution of math teaching, in math teaching, there had been a lot of pendulum swings, I mean, you might go back to the 80s. And you’d see a lot of students doing a lot of drill work, and it would be all drill work. And then it was decided that this wasn’t the way to teach, that students didn’t like this, or they found it boring, or some people thought that maybe it caused anxiety. And so, then we kind of go the other way, to the point where it’s practice and drill is actually disparaged. And this is really dangerous, because it’s really important for kids to actually get things like times tables, memorised, et cetera, or even when I’m teaching university mathematics, my students have to do a lot of practice of derivative problems to be able to do derivatives, so they can later do integration, right? We don’t want to overwhelm working memory. So, I mean, now also, we see things like a lot more group work, those types of things board work, a lot of different methods for teaching. So instead of teaching one method for doing a problem, a person might teach multiple methods. And to an extent, these things are fine, right? Except that, you know, you don’t want to sort of throw the baby out with the bathwater, right? Like, we need to keep some of these things like the practice is really important. And you do want to sort of direct students towards efficient methods when you’re teaching otherwise, they get confused, they might never master a particular method if they’re taught on a lot of different methods. So those are some of the things I would talk about. At the end of the day, it’s traditional instruction is actually quite effective. And there’s, there’s a lot of evidence backing that up in math, it’s important that people keep a lot of that, because we do want students to be successful.
Dietmar: I agree with you, you know, on the repetition part, I mean, I find, you know, when I’m teaching chemistry, that students are doing problems and to get them to do more problems. It’s I think it’s still a viable and useful teaching learning technique. For my students. It’s, you know, not very flashy, it’s not the latest technology, but it works. And it has added benefits to because my, you know, we were talking about anxiety before my students get really anxious on exams. And I think one of the things that repetition does, it lets the student become familiar with seeing problems and doing problems and building confidence. And I think, psychologically, at least this is, this is what I hope I haven’t really measured this. But I’m hoping that it will help the students as they hit more stressful points in the course.
Anna: I think you’re exactly right. And I think that things like STEM anxiety, or math anxiety, and the impact on performance, I think this is bidirectional. So on the one hand, if a student is really anxious, it will maybe prevent them from doing well in the subject. But the opposite is true as well. If you’re not doing well, in the subject, it makes you anxious about the subject, right. So, we kind of have to look at both sides, like we have to, if we can work on getting students to a place where they’re comfortable with the material, they’ll be less anxious.
Dietmar: One of the big things in chemistry is the laboratory. I have seen in the past where students come in and they’re very anxious the first couple of times that they’re in a laboratory, you know, you get they get the white lab coat and the safety glasses and they get the safety talk. And then they have to do chemistry quite often. The first few experiments are nothing more than what you would do in your own kitchen, getting some water, boiling it, adding a few things, letting it cool down fishing a few things out, but because you say to the student, they’re now in a lab, some of them completely fall apart and are very unsure of themselves. And so I’m even more convinced that not just examinations but in law laboratory setting, convincing the students and building up that comfort and kind of downplaying the anxiety in any way you can, describing it as this is what you would do in the kitchen or just letting them be familiar with the equipment and spend some time with it kind of lowers that anxiety, hopefully, that also means that more learning is going on.
Dietmar: I gotta take the opportunity to again, because I’ve got two mathematicians here. And one of the things when I was growing up and as a young academic too, one of the things that I would see is women. And it starts fairly early on, they would still be girls kind of turning away from science and in particular mathematics. And I’m wondering if you had maybe any insights for me on perhaps, are there certain barriers that girls are facing in mathematics as they’re kind of being introduced to it or going along? Can you give us some insight to that? And has it changed? Because I mean, I’m basing my observations on decades old information, are things different now?
Anna: Sure. So, I can talk a bit about that. So, it’s definitely true that women are underrepresented in STEM fields, and probably particularly in math and physics and engineering. Now, first of all, I want to say that women are equally girls, women are equally capable of doing mathematics. Okay, so the question is, why if because that’s the case. Why is it that there are fewer women in in math fields, that math heavy careers, the first thing I would say is, I think it likely has something to do with culture and stereotypes. So traditionally, math, heavy fields were male dominated, right. And some of that may persist. It may be that sometimes girls see themselves as not being the type of person that’s a math person, like I discussed about earlier. So that could possibly be some of it. And I’m going to sort of talk about both sides. So, I’m going to talk a bit about K to 12. And then I’m going to talk a bit about the university level in choosing your career. I think that often a lot more boys see themselves as math people than girls. And I think there are a few reasons for that. Again, I think it’s maybe stereotype. But the other thing that I think that should be mentioned is that about 90% of K to eight teachers are female. And it’s well documented that students in the education, elementary education fields, tend to be more math anxious than in other fields. And so, what happens is, you often have female teachers in the classroom, who are math anxious and feel uncomfortable with the math that they’re teaching. And it has been shown that this impacts girls more than it impacts boys, that the math anxiety rubs off on them, the discomfort, the dislike with mathematics. So, I think that’s something that is really does happen. I would also say that just in general, when math isn’t taught well, when we’re not teaching math using best practices, or when we have teachers in the classroom that maybe aren’t familiar with math, it impacts all the students, right, it impacts and it may possibly impact some students more than others. And the real problem is addressing how math is taught in the classroom in the first place. So, I’ll talk a bit about at the university level, because of course, I teach mathematics. So, when I teach introductory calculus, I have a lot of female students in my class. And they I have a lot of female students that perform exceptionally well. In fact, it’s not uncommon that the best student in my class is probably a female student. But by the time I get to fourth year, when I’m teaching a fourth year class, I have very few female students. So, it’s almost all male students. And so, something that that is definitely happening is they’re not choosing to go on in math. So, is that a bad thing? I don’t know. I mean, they’re choosing to do other things. So, they’re choosing to, as you mentioned earlier, go into medicine go into law, so maybe they’re interested in more practical careers, but I don’t think it’s because they’re not capable of doing it. They’re just choosing not to. So, what I like to see more females in my upper level classes? Yes, and I try to encourage that, but usually I find that they’re choosing some more practical career like medicine or law.
Anna: So Mark, we have talked a fair bit about things like STEM anxiety, and I think you know a bit about this, and I’m wondering if you can share some strategies for relieving STEM anxiety?
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Anna. I think STEM anxiety, math anxiety, STEM anxiety, this is something that anybody who teaches in the in the field sees this on a day to day basis, you know, from students breaking down during exams, to students going into an exam that expect to score high, that score really low. And there doesn’t oftentimes, from the analytical perspective look like there’s good reason for it. And I’m always left as an educator motivated to think how can I help my student relieve some of this anxiety, that math equivalent form of writer’s block, essentially, for STEM students? And how can we relieve that? First and foremost, I do think that there, there is an inverse correlation between confidence and anxiety. So students that have a high degree of confidence, have usually a lower degree of anxiety. And students that have a lower degree of confidence, usually have a higher degree of anxiety, almost in the same sense of, you know, you go to travel to a foreign destination, and you’re the first time you travel there, you’re maybe anxious when you get there, you don’t know what the food is going to be like, you don’t know what policing is going to be like you don’t know anything. But then as you travel to that location, more and more often, you gain confidence in your surroundings. And I think that that really can apply very nicely to the discipline.
So, to help relieve some anxiety is you need to be able to recognise that your students can often feel alone in STEM courses. Group projects are rare. If ever in STEM environments, most definitely. We need to have students be able to prove competency on their own by themselves with very few aids. But with that said, that sense of being alone can really get compounded when students start to see others around them in the classroom, articulating fluid answers with great deal of confidence, they start to think I should get this I should get this. And then they have lo and behold, an instructor at the front of the room was presenting with a tremendous amount of confidence. And it’s Further compounding that feeling of being alone almost in the subject. So how can we build some of this confidence? And how do we look past this feeling of students being alone, the first thing that I found is definitely to increase opportunities for peer engagement. As I said, group work is pretty rare in a STEM field. And at the end of the day, you do need the student to prove individually that they’re competent with the subject. But the more often you can put your students into group environments, the more they’re able to sort of deflect off of one another and re-instil confidence in one another.
And I think the second thing is really give yourself more opportunity for personalised reflective feedback through formative assessment. I think we a lot of educators, myself included, we get really trapped under tight deadlines, and we’re into a 15 week semester, we got to get grades in we got it, we’ve got to do things just like that. And ultimately, what can sometimes happen is we start to lessen the amount that we’re using formative assessment. And we start to lessen the amount of times that we are providing really robust quality feedback to students. And really, that can tremendously boost a student’s confidence in the STEM subject. The other thing that I want to comment on with regards to increasing confidence is to recognise students supports, and not only am I talking about students supports from the perspective of say, your institution’s accessibility and accommodations that maybe they have in place, but further supports in the sense of like calculators, if you’re allowing calculators in the math exam, I find a lot of times and my, and I’m guilty of this, I take for granted some of those calculator skills that I have, that I kind of just expect my students to know, it’s not something that’s written directly in the course outline pretty well ever, we don’t really ever say, you know, can a student row reduce the matrix using using the Texas Instrument calculator, that’s very rarely put in if ever put into a course outline. And a lot of times, I think, as instructors, we’ve just we’ve learned that, and we have a hard time passing that on to our students. So, we do need to make sure that students know how to use supports, and know how to A. access supports and B. know how to use those supports.
Another thing that to specifically target though anxiety, especially on exams, I find we’re moving. We’re really in a great transition right now, where we’ve gone from really a lot of paper based examinations to more digital examinations. And one of the benefits actually, that I see with relieving anxiety on digital examinations is we can often include hints, like digital hints that are built into earlier questions on the exam. And again, this kind of targets out sort of writer’s block components of STEM anxiety, so that if a student opens their exam, and their mind just goes blank, and they’re panicking, they’re going I should know this, I should know this. I’ve memorised you know, all 300 pages of the textbook. I don’t have a single question wrong, but for some reason, they’re looking at that first question. And they’re just drawing a complete blank. So, we what we can do is sometimes include hints on earlier exam questions that hopefully help trigger that confidence and get that students feedback underneath them so that they can get going. Another big one is, Anna and I spoke about this, but no new questions, right? And no show off questions. We see faculty do this occasionally. And I’ve done this before, where I sit my office and sort of twiddle my fingers and go “ha ha ha” and I can make this one step more difficult and I pass it to a colleague and my colleague across from me says, “aha ha, no, no, you could do this, and you will make it that much more difficult.” And it sometimes becomes a show a show in the sense of how difficult can we make that one single question. Ultimately, what we need to when we think about relieving STEM anxiety, is has the students seen a question like that before? And is that a fair question to ask the student, given the opportunities that you’ve presented with them prior?
And the thing that I kind of want to close out this, the STEM anxiety question on is really to be empathetic to your students. And to, to understand that your students are taking other classes, they’re not just enrolled in in your math class, they potentially have a history class, an English class, a business class, a marketing class, they could be scattered all over campus, and there’s a lot of things going on. Plus, all those things are compounded by what might be going on at home. So certainly, gain an understanding, be a human in front of your students, talk to your students, not just like their, their student ID numbers, but engage in personal conversation with them, to let them know that you care about their success, because ultimately, then you’re going to become their partner in their success. And that’s going to in itself really help with, with relieving some anxiety and the feelings of un-comfort in being there.
I kind of want to turn a question over to Dietmar. And my question to Dietmar is going to be some ideas that maybe Dietmar you’ve come up with to help make STEM subjects more accessible to students?
Dietmar: I probably should before I answer that, I’ll partially give some context, because at my university Athabasca University, we’re 100% distance and online. And so, I’m going to be talking about that context. But I think it’s relevant given that we’ve been dealing with a pandemic for the last year or so. And a lot of people have been teaching online and at a distance, but at the end, I’m probably going to turn it over back to you and ask the two of you how that might look like in the classroom. So, from my perspective, accessibility starts with good learning design, because our students are coming in, they’re doing the courses online quite often asynchronously. So, they’re dealing mostly with content, rather than people. And so, things like learning outcomes clearly stated, so the student knows where to go, avoiding the tyranny of what I call the tyranny of content. Because it’s so easy when you put things online to keep on adding more and more things, at least in a lecture, you’ve only got an hour to talk, but I could give you reams to read. So, have to be really careful of that. And associated with that is maybe not think so much about a reading but think more along in terms of activities, rather than reading and providing more content. And then context pieces. Like if you can provide connections for students that’s quite often useful in making it more accessible. Simple things like you know, just navigation, using whitespace, universal access, and I mean, more than just students with different abilities, but also realising that students are coming with different backgrounds and cultures and so on. And so really being reflective of you know, what material you’re putting forward are all my chemistry examples, the guy in the lab doing an experiment, maybe there are women in the lab to things like that, or using different examples from different areas, not always drawing, you know, the water from the same well, all the time, and other simple things. And we’ve talked about this already things like repetition and kind of putting that in. So these are the things that you know, I would do in design in the classroom, but I was also thinking that, you know, at an institutional level, we need to make things more accessible as well, because I think over the years we’ve become much more siloed in our disciplines.
We mentioned earlier on that with STEM you know, there’s there’s overlap between those different areas. But if you go to a college or university, you’re in a particular programme or a discipline and quite often you kind of miss out on the breadth. And so I you know, have a strong feeling that you know, I would love to see really good science courses for non scientists, Simon Fraser University has a course called chemistry in your home working environment for non scientists, it’s a great way to reach out incorporating science into other disciplines, if possible, if we could convince our colleagues to do that. rethinking how intro sciences how we approach non majors, because a lot of us with especially with first year, university courses, teach it as if it was, you know, the first step into creating a chemist or a physicist or a biologist or a mathematician And whereas quite often it’s, you know, some of those students, it’s the last course they’re taking in that discipline, what do we want them to kind of carry with them in their life, and along the same lines, not locking down students too early in their programme. And one of the things that I’ve had a lot of success with in the past is getting students involved in outreach activities in the sciences. So, if there’s a local, you know, science fair, or doing some science writing, because I think the best way to learn as a student is, in some ways, teaching. And so those are a few of the, you know, kind of thoughts that I had.
And I just kind of, you know, before I hand it back over to you, I think that, in general, whether you’re doing it online, or in a classroom or on the beach, you know, with a stick and drawing in the sand, good teaching is good teaching. And so, you know, some of the key components for accessibility is like, really be passionate about your discipline, because I think students really that resonates with students, if you’re not passionate about your discipline, how do you expect your students to kind of get into it as well. And the other thing is, and Mark mentioned this already, he says, You care about their success. You have to believe in your students, sometimes even before they believe in themselves, because I think the single biggest game changer for my students, as soon as they realise that you’re on their side, and this is not, you know, you’re not the gatekeeper. You’re there to help them. You’re the coach, the mentor, you really want them to succeed. And I think I’ll just leave it there and maybe ask you. Are there maybe things that look different in the classroom?
Mark: For in classroom much the same I certainly a strong degree of empathy, for sure. And building a good rapport with your students is first and foremost, making sure that what you’re delivering is fair and equitable. And I think what I tried to do is go in with little expectations, sometimes as an educator for teaching the same class over and over and over and over and over again, it almost becomes natural that when we see a new group of students, we’re expecting the new group to pick up where the old group left off. And that can be really detrimental to how you’re delivering. And it can be really detrimental to delivering your education in a way that’s building good positive rapport amongst students. So enter it with little expectations, and with a lot of hope, most definitely for your students. And I find that they will more often present themselves to you. And it’s more likely that rather than lecturing to 30 students that are not at all actively engaged, it’s going to create a much bigger dynamic, and it’s going to be a lot more cross conversation, as students are there and they’re wanting to gain your confidence. And they’re wanting to build their own.
I’ll question over to Anna here as to what are some of the best practices that you’ve experienced for teaching and learning mathematics?
Anna: I really love some of the things that have already been said. So, you talked about empathy, and you talked about passion and believing in your students. And those are all really important. So, I won’t mention those again. But I’ll mention some more practical things, I would say the first thing, when you’re teaching math, you really have to take working memory into consideration. So, your working memory cannot hold that much, maybe a seven digit phone number, and then that’s it right and you’ll lose it. But your long term memory can hold a lot like an unlimited amount of materials. It’s important when you’re teaching math to get some things into long term memory, because you don’t want to be struggling with trying to figure out a problem because your working memory is overwhelmed. So, for instance, that young grades, we really need kids who have memorised their times tables, we don’t want them having to work out eight times seven, you know, by repeated addition, when they’re trying to solve an algebra problem, because they’ll get lost in the algebra problem. At higher levels, it would be you know what I’m teaching calculus, I would expect my students to have certain derivatives memorised so that they can figure out more complicated problems. That’s something that I think is really important. And I think oftentimes, people don’t think as much about that as they should. And I think sometimes we’re presenting too many things to students at once, and then they’re lost, and they think it’s their fault, but it’s not their fault at all. It’s because we didn’t sort of chunk it up for them, right. And so along the same lines, something that’s really important is called scaffolding. And so, what that means as you present things in incremental steps, so at each stage, you go a little beyond the last stage, and I like to explain this with something most people could understand. And that would be let’s say, you’re teaching someone how to add two digit numbers. You shouldn’t start with a problem where they have to carry or regroup like 37 plus 88. Instead, you should start with 30 plus 80. And then you gradually move up to 37 plus 80 and keep moving up so that the students mastered each step. And before you know it, they’re able to solve a really difficult problem. And they don’t even know how they got there. But they can do it. The scaffolding is really important in math. And of course, and I’ve said once, and I’ll say it again, practice is really important to make practice fun, it doesn’t have to be boring, but it’s a really important thing for students to do. There’s literally no way around that there’s no royal road to geometry, as Euclid said, you really have to do the practice to get good at math. And the other thing I would have mentioned is low stakes assessments with feedback. And Mark talked a lot about assessments, and you have some really great ideas about assessments, and just a lot of problem sets that they can do. And especially with online homework, it’s easy to assign these and just as long as students are getting a lot of feedback. And then of course, the last thing I would definitely have to say is be passionate. And Dietmar, already mentioned it passion does rub off on students. And if they can see that you’re having fun, and you’re working through all these problems. And math is super fun, right? It’s like a bunch of little puzzles that you get to do and solve. And if students can see you doing that, and they see how much fun you’re having, they’ll have fun, too. You don’t even have to do anything super fancy. So just be passionate about your subject.
Dietmar: Those are wonderful comments. I mean, I certainly agree with what both of you have said, and you know, sometimes I’m a little jealous that I get to see my students quite often in the laboratory, but I don’t get to see them in the classroom. Having that connection, you try to do it online. And there are ways to do it. And I see a lot of parallels you mentioned, like I said, the you know, the tyranny of content, but also how you present things. And the whole idea of and I’ve been kind of getting interested in this, how the brain operates. In particular, how does his brain learn? And how can you avoid things that the brain does that are out of your control? So, for example, the equivalent to kind of giving too much information all at once. If you do that in writing, you have things like intentional or unintentional blindness, you just have this overload of material, and people will miss out on things. So quite often, you know, the message, especially for our younger colleagues, is less is more because you are trying to get in there and you want a little bit more depth and understanding. It’s not like you have to cover everything. And it’s always like that phrase of you know, what you’re trying to do is not fill a bucket, you’re trying to light a fire. And so, I think that’s a really good approach to teaching and learning.
Anna: So Dietmar, let’s turn it back to science. So how do you think science or STEM can be better promoted to the general public?
Dietmar: Well, I think a lot is already being done. And I’m glad you brought this up. Because I look around and I see popular science magazines, I see TV shows or video programmes, popularising, popularising science, their science centres and museums that do quite a bit. And it’s important work because all of these areas are informal and non-formal ways of learning science. And so, you mentioned general public, it’s great for general public, but I would also recommend it to my colleagues who are professional scientists, because, you know, most of us have our discipline. And we might be very good at chemistry, or math, or physics or whatever. But a lot of what we learn from the other disciplines in science are from these non-formal roots. And I think every time you have people who are doing community outreach, public lectures, museums, science centres, all these things, I think it’s, it’s really great, because as we mentioned at the beginning of our discussion, it’s really important to have people who are STEM literate, because there’s so many important decisions in our society that are connected with the STEM disciplines. And to have this basic working knowledge. You don’t need to be an expert, but asking the right questions and being engaged and interested, I think, benefits everybody.
Anna: Shifting conversations was created by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, or STLHE 2021 cohort of the 3M National Teaching Fellows, with the expert guidance of Judy Bornais and Srini Sampalli. This project was made possible by STLHE with the generous support of 3M Canada Special thanks to the team at STLHE, Jay Adamson Natalie Smith, Tanya Botterill and Debbie Brady. Project management and technical support from Craig Fraser, social media support by Aysha Campbell additional support from Meghan Tibbs original music composed by Hope Salmonson and performed by Ventus Machina. You can find more information on our website www.stlhe.ca/podcasts.