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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
November 19, 2004

Jody Cohen (Education)
Exploring Pathways to Access: Students Teaching Students


Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Jody began the session by asking all attenders to write for a few minutes about "Bryn Mawr's goals for its students in relation to science learning." We then read aloud what we had written:

  • Bryn Mawr has contradictory roles in relation to science: on the one hand, the college is well resourced in bringing in students, offering them choices and rigor; on the other, it practices the "gateway" phenomena: using science classes to indicate "who can't make it"
  • science at Bryn Mawr is about needing to learn to compete, to trust oneself, to gain assurance in knowing, to learn to contribute to society in an area that was reserved for men
  • who gets to tell the story of science? in the "consensus story," Bryn Mawr aims to expose all students to science; in the "story I would like to think is what happens here," the aim is to engage all students, empowering them for life
  • there's a difference between my experience and "how the institution feels" about science education
  • students using Peer Led Instruction in order to manage historically challenging classes don't seem to be asking questions about "why things are structured the way they are" (including "why they should be taking this course")
  • my own/my department's composite view of our goals is to teach students to think critically, to learn to "live in curiousity," to give them the tools they need to approach their career goals, and to give them an "accurate sense of how science is done," what "its units are"
  • it's about learning to think critically and be skeptical
  • the curriculum is a component: science is a particular way of knowing, a different, comparative approach to thinking
  • in modern society, women should have proficiency in science, to better their lives
  • there are different goals for majors and non-majors:
  • we hope that those who will not become professionals will not automatically exclude science from their way of thinking, that they will willingly participate in debates and discusions of issues with science components to them (thinking analogously: music is a big part of the lives of many people who are not musicians; why can't the same be true for scientists?)
  • for majors, the hope is to get more women into male-dominated fields
  • it's about information and access for the whole student body
  • it's about learning the art of inquiry and experiment, learning to be open-minded about evidence, learning the goals of research
  • from very limited contact with science students: "no clue" what the goals are
  • the goals here are the same as for any discipline: critical and independent thinking--but science majors see science as a closed field, impervious to social influence, and "pure" science as superior to applied work; they idealize the work of scientists (the humanity majors are more critical)
  • both the "consensus" story and the "ought-to-be" story are stable "consensus stories"; we agree about what "should be"--but what we need to consider is the "what is" story, which varies widely among us.

The Education Program is currently conducting a team endeavor to assess the effectiveness of students teaching students across campus. This happens in a variety of forms (peer tutoring, peer mentoring, peer lead instruction, teaching assistanceships, problem sessions and study groups). Our focus for the remainder of the session was on the activities of Peer Led Instruction (PLI). This is a particular form of supplemental instruction, a structure involving lots of resources and training, developed nationally to address the high drop-out and high failure rates in large science classes. It was adapted to the Bryn Mawr campus to address student demands for help in the introductory science courses. There was a perception of unpleasant experiences in these courses which individual tutoring was not adequately addressing.

The peer-led sessions are completely voluntary, and attendance varies; there are some "core" or repeat attenders. The sessions neither repeat the lecture nor serve as problem sessions; the topics reinforce the lecture, grapple with the questions it raised, and offer models on how to pass the tests. Peer instructors go back over material, rather than offering new material. The student instructors are paid to attend the classes and work up their own sessions; they are not teaching assistants to the professors, but act independently and do their own thinking.

We might actually think of this intervention in science education as one way of reconfiguring who "science's audience" is. Peer Led Instruction is a compact set of "structural moves to increase access to the sciences"; there is an "equity piece" to this initiative which is expressive of a core Bryn Mawr value. The peer leaders are part of the course: they attend the lectures to listen for "where students might get caught," and base what they should do in their sessions on their sense of the "motion in the classroom." They are "in the audience" in a different way than the students enrolled in the course for credit, and their presence shifts the boundaries of the course in some interesting ways. The presence of one member of the audience who is a student-teacher "layers up" how you think about teaching and learning.

There is a range in how this actually gets implemented. Jody shared the field notes from one observer in a session, who "could not figure out who the leader was"; the group seemed very comfortable working through the questions together. In other sessions, the students turn to the peer leader as an authority, rather than trying to figure out the material for themselves. As a result and further extension of this research, Alice Lesnick will be offering a new course this spring called "Empowering Learners," designed for students who occupy the learning support role. The course will include the activity of "formative assessment," involving "continual feedback." This course may increase the visibility of Peer Led Instruction on campus.

The question was posed whether such supplemental instruction might have the effect of perpetuating poor instruction in the primary location (i.e. the large introductory science lectures). Some students experience General Chemistry as "an additional circle of hell"; an "IQ can drop thirty points" when a student opens a textbook for this class. There is so much information, so much content to cover that cannot be understood instinctively or intuitively. Although some scientists on campus would prefer to teach small classes, with the opportunity to work through questions with individuals, we can't afford for them to do so.

If change will not happen from above, can it happen from below? One way that Peer Led Instruction might operate as a vehicle for change, rather than reinforcing bad teaching in large lectures, is through continual feedback (which does not happens now with any regularity): the peer instructor could tell the professor about the ways in which students received her lectures, pointing out the moments when they got confused or lost. Comparison was made to a "leveling scheme" used in the Congo, where students are tested for different levels of preparation, and taught accordingly, without lowering standards. Something similar is done here: students are tested for math ability, which is often determinative for science majors.

But whose interests are we serving here? The question remains: how much diversity in student ability do we want to accomodate, and how much are these courses intended to acknowledge that variety in order to select for those who will be good scientists? And what does it mean to be a good scientist: to think critically and take in lots of information?

This was the final session of this semester's series on "Science's Audiences." The Brown Bag discussions will resume in person in January. In the interim, the conversation is invited to continue online.

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