Dr. Gerald Feldman of George Washington University Talks to Learn.org

George Washington University is planning to open a new Science and Engineering Complex in 2014. Building proposals call for the inclusion of SCALE-UP classrooms, innovative learning spaces designed to promote active learning and student collaboration. Physics professor Gerald Feldman, a champion of SCALE-UP, talks with Learn.org about these innovative practices. Schools offering Health Science degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Gerald Feldman George Washington University

Learn.org: Can you describe your educational and professional background, including your role at George Washington University?

Gerald Feldman: My background is in nuclear physics. I earned my undergraduate degree at Penn and I went to grad school at the University of Washington. Because I wanted to do nuclear physics after grad school, I did a post doc at a lab at Duke. Then I was on the research staff at the University of Saskatchewan for five and a half years. I came to George Washington as a faculty member in 1996.

I came with no teaching experience per se except as a TA in grad school. Shortly after I arrived, I was sent to the New Faculty Workshop sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers. A new program, it was meant as a weekend orientation to teaching and life as a new faculty member in physics. The workshop opened my eyes to a number of things, including innovative classroom techniques like the peer instruction method that incorporates electronic keypads.

Learn.org The planned Science and Engineering Complex at George Washington is set to include two interactive 'SCALE-UP labs.' Can you describe the layout of these labs?

GF: SCALE-UP emerged from the concept of studio physics, introduced at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in the 1990s. It really comes from the idea of an art studio. When you go to an art studio, you don't have lectures. You have a studio where people do painting or sculpture or whatever and the instructor wanders around giving them feedback. People at RPI thought physics should work in the same way, so they introduced studio physics in labs of 15 or 20 students. They did exercises and problem solving labs, all integrated. The integration of lecture and lab was key, so you wouldn't have things out of synchronization as they can sometimes be in the standard course.

In the mid- to late-1990s, North Carolina State's Bob Beichner conceived of 'scaling up' the studio physics concept from 15-20 student labs to larger classes of about 100 students. These classrooms feature round tables - no desks, no seats, no rows of tables - with three groups of three students. These groups work more or less by themselves but, of course, they have the other groups at the table to consult with. The groups work together on mini white boards (like 3' x 2') with markers. And the instructor and the TAs wander around the room helping those who are struggling.

So students don't work individually. They work together on white boards. (Other places use tablet computers or other technology.) When students are done, they display their solutions to the entire class, facilitating further discussion. Instructors call on groups to answer conceptual questions for the class. We also use electronic keypads for some of the problems that groups work on.

Learn.org How do you conduct SCALE-UP labs at George Washington University?

GF: My goal is to create a collaborative environment that integrates lecture and lab. There's no 'traditional' lecture - I don't come in and start talking and explaining things. Instead, students must familiarize themselves with the content we'll cover on a given day by reading the book prior to class. They also complete pre-class online exercises designed to gauge their understanding. In principle, they come into class ready to work.

In class, I pose questions that students must answer before we go on to the next exercise. Instead of being a lecturer, I'm more like a coach. I present the drill, the exercise they must do. As they encounter challenges in their work, I guide them forward through my comments. I'll also encourage discussions between groups in the class.

Someone learning to swim isn't going to be successful after simply being shown the swimming strokes on a blackboard. You don't teach like that. You have to throw the person in the water and say here you go - sink or swim. Of course, if you've given them the guidance and provided them with the support they should not sink!

Learn.org Are you able to explain why interactive classroom experiences often produce more effective learning than traditional lectures?

GF: Because learning comes from actually doing things. Students are processing concepts right then and there, and they are working through difficulties by doing the problems together with their classmates. They're working harder and are more engaged. It's much easier to tune out in a lecture hall where it's just a professor talking at the front of the class.

As a point of contrast, I've asked students in the SCALE-UP class I'm teaching now to determine the weight of a car. They have to get together outside of class and measure the footprint of the four tires on a car as well as tire pressures. By knowing the tire pressure and the footprint, you can get pretty close to the real weight. SCALE-UP labs are more effective because students are more engaged, they're actually doing stuff.

Research done at North Carolina State has proven that SCALE-UP works for students at all skill levels. Poorly performing students are helped by peers in their groups, and the good students are not wasting their time because explaining things to others enriches their own understanding. It's all about active learning, something you don't typically have in traditional lectures.

Learn.org Have other departments at George Washington expressed interest in incorporating SCALE-UP labs into coursework?

GF: Yes. One biology teacher did a SCALE-UP class for introductory bio. We've had some math classes use the room. And select economics, communications and computer science instructors have taught classes there. A big draw of SCALE-UP is the collaboration it promotes. Instructors develop group exercises that work well for the room, capitalizing on the interactive dynamic.

Learn.org How do most students respond in SCALE-UP labs?

GF: In general, students buy into it. Some say it is too much work, of course, and they ask to be placed in a different lab. In SCALE-UP, there's really nowhere to hide in the room. You have the round tables, and the instructor goes around observing what everyone's doing. Those who don't want to take part in a SCALE-UP classroom may prefer a lesser experience if it means they can sit in the back of a lecture hall playing on a laptop or reading a newspaper. They might also just feel like they learn in a way that isn't enhanced by the group interaction.

Most of the students who are willing to give it a try, though, really enjoy the class. Everyone gets to know everyone else. It becomes a huge classroom community. The ones that you connect with really appreciate what SCALE-UP does for them. But I have to be honest about it: SCALE-UP classes are not for everyone, although most students would definitely benefit by giving it a shot.

Learn.org How do you anticipate your role as a professor will change in the expanded SCALE-UP facilities planned for the new Science and Engineering Complex?

GF: In studio physics, the instructor takes on the role of a coach promoting active learning. This is a role I've developed in current labs. In future SCALE-UP classes, the role will remain largely the same. It's really more a matter of developing a technique for handling a larger room with more students. Our next step at George Washington is to double the size of our room so that it holds 80 students. This will be a stepping-stone in terms of preparing for the proposed classrooms of 108 students in the new building.

You know, I have to admit it is easier to lecture to 120 students sitting quietly in a room. You are in control, and nothing varies. In SCALE-UP, things are much more dynamic, and therefore unpredictable (which is the fun part). Teaching in these labs, you do have to run around from table to table helping students. But as long as you have the energy, assistance from TAs and students willing to work, these labs are just much, much better for learning.

Learn.org Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about yourself and SCALE-UP labs at George Washington University.

GF: The Physics Department has been fortunate to receive two separate grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study SCALE-UP, despite the fact that money for physics education research is hard to come by. The fact that our efforts at George Washington have led to two NSF grants is significant. This is investment in research, but research in pedagogy - not research in biophysics or research in nuclear physics. It's gratifying because the university gave us money to try SCALE-UP, and that obviously was a risk on its part. But the investment has paid off not only in pedagogy - given SCALE-UP will be included in the Science and Engineering Complex - but in external funding from federal grants, as well.

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