Student Engagement in Science

Many students approach their introductory science courses with a check-box mentality, and enrolling means learning isolated facts. This restricted goal does not capture the intellectual excitement of science nor the relevance of science to students' personal lives. Low appeal and retention rates have contributed to national shortages of scientists, medical researchers and engineers. The combined goals of our educational change are to attract, retain and help students succeed in science. Students in their first two years in college will experience the excitement of discovery, the joy of asking questions about how the universe works, and the satisfaction that they can use their scientific skills to help make a difference in this world. Our current results are

  • Retention for STEM majors increased from 74 to 79%
  • Students report an increase in understanding that science requires creativity
  • Students understand more about the research processes used in science


Students struggle when faced with complex and open-ended tasks because the strategies taught in schools and universities simply require finding and applying the correct formulae or strategy to answer well-structured, algorithmic problems. Over the past several years I have been working with colleagues on pedagogies how to develop students' ability to solve ill-structured problems.

Together we have developed an online tool (ThinkSpace) that makes it easy for faculty to add complex, real-world cases to university courses. ThinkSpace is used in physics, vet med (clinical and anatomic pathology, toxicology, pharmacology, parasitology, internal medicine, microbiology, physiology  and animal welfare),  food safety, biology, advertising, geology, teacher education, mechanical engineering, and industrial engineering. As of Spring 2013 over 3500 students have solved cases using ThinkSpace in over 150 courses. ThinkSpace is now an incubator project of APEREO with the goal of disseminating this to many other universities.

We have learnt several key aspects of how students solve problems:

  • As the semester progresses students become more selective — requesting facts later in the problem-solving session and requesting less irrelevant information. As the semester progresses, students submit their qualitative analysis of the problem earlier in the class session, suggesting that this task moves from being one to complete solely to satisfy the requirements, to a task that helps students solve the problem. (Educ Inf Technol (2011) 16:32334)
  • Students’ beliefs about physics problem-solving change over the course of a semester working on these problems. The frequency of strategies such as the Rolodex method reduces only slightly by the end of the semester. However, there is an increase in students describing more expansive strategies within their reflections.  In particular there is a large increase in describing the use of diagrams, and thinking about concepts first. (Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 5, 020102 (2009))
In other education research, I helped redesign lecture-theater Room 3 at ISU to have two rows of seats per vertical tier where the front seats could swivel. The seats enable students to turn and have face-to-face discussions with their peers about conceptual questions during lecture. I then analyzed student conceptual understanding depending on whether they attended lectures in the swivel-seat theater or a traditional theater. Both high- and low-performing students benefited from the swivel-seat discussions, with potentially a larger benefit for stronger students. (published manuscript)

Contact me if you are interested in working on these projects either as an undergraduate or graduate student.

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