National Science Foundation grant funds continued success of integrated science course

By Janel Shoun-Smith on 5/1/2013

   
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White boarding is a learning technique used frequently in Power of Science.

How do you calculate the speed of light using a microwave oven? How do you make ice cream with liquid nitrogen? What has more energy: chocolate chip cookies or dynamite?

These are all questions that students in the Power of Science two-course sequence can now answer.

And now, thanks to a sub grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Lipscomb University’s College of Arts and Sciences will continue to offer and refine the popular interdisciplinary science course series that finds itself ahead of the curve for educating the next generation of science education students.

“These courses are making Lipscomb an integrated science education leader among those involved in the Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) organization,” said Todd Gary, an astrobiologist and adjunct professor who is team-teaching the Power of Science course with nutrition department chair Autumn Marshall this semester. “When we go to conferences and show our results – the increases in content knowledge, attitudes toward science and change in understanding and skills – everyone wants to know how we did it.”

This year, SENCER awarded a fifth sub grant, funded by the NSF, to Ben Hutchinson,  professor of chemistry, who began the development process for Power of Science and kick-started Lipscomb’s involvement with SENCER in 2007. Since then, SENCER has awarded almost $14,000 in grants to support Lipscomb’s efforts to combine science education, civic engagement and service-learning in a general education course.

SENCER is a national project, supported with a grant from the NSF, to improve science education for students who may never major in a scientific field; to connect science education reform to more robust general education programs; and to stimulate informed civic engagement with scientific questions on the part of today’s students.

This semester’s Power of Science course focuses on the link between physics and nutrition – energy. It blends physics and nutrition with civic engagement and hands-on learning to provide students a deeper understanding of how science relates to daily life and a vast array of non-science occupations.

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Students worked in groups for all projects, a learning technique often used in graduate school and higher-level courses.
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Students (including Aamanda Johnson on the far left) did research studies and produced posters exactly like the posters they will be asked to produce later in ther undergraduate and graduate college career.
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This students used whiteboarding to learn many of the digits of pi.

Genadiy Khadzhi, a law, justice and society major from Nashville who goes by “G,” took the class this spring and believes it will help him no matter what career he ends up in. “The power of science is everywhere,” he said. “We are all experiencing it in daily life. Overall, at least I now know how to test theories, how some things work, what the elements on the periodic table are, Newton’s laws, the speed of light, and, most importantly, how to find a credible answer if I ever get stumped.”

In the spring course, students researched the advantages and disadvantages of using corn as food or as fuel and presented their findings in posters and through white boarding, much as they may have to do later in their college career or at graduate school. They also used marshmallows, bubble gum and orange slices to create models of molecules and created a video on the elements of life.

This past fall, the students studied biology and chemistry and integrated service-learning during a field trip to Radnor Lake to help state officials study and remove invasive plants. Past courses have required students to conduct water treatment tests in the Little Harpeth River and to study attention-grabbing topics such as global warming, H1N1, pollution and food safety to teach a variety of applicable science concepts from biology, chemistry, physics and nutrition. 

The class has proven particularly attractive to elementary education majors who need to have an understanding of science, but don’t want to become a scientist. In fact, Lipscomb's College of Education now requires the two-course Power of Science sequence for all its K-6 education majors.

“We strive to educate teachers to help their students think holistically, teaching curriculum not as isolated units but as parts that connect to each other and overlap across disciplines,” said Candice McQueen, dean of the College of Education. “The integrated science courses at Lipscomb model the best practices we teach our own education students.”

“We want elementary education majors to like science and to appreciate it, because they will carry that attitude into the classroom with them,” said Marshall. “A strong understanding of the various disciplines of science will not only serve them well but will also benefit the students they teach.”

“The concepts and ideas that I learned in this course will help me on the Praxis (Tennessee’s teacher licensure exam) and they will also be some of the building blocks that I could potentially teach my students at the elementary level,” said Amanda Johnson, a sophomore elementary education major in the course. “I enjoyed all the different types of projects we did. Although I am normally not a fan of group projects, I feel as though they helped me learn the concepts better than just reading a textbook.”

By participating in the SENCER project, Lipscomb is contributing to a national reform effort that connects the improvement of undergraduate science education to some of the most vexing civic challenges the nation and future graduates will face.

“So many of our most significant civic challenges require a knowledge of science and mathematics. We are pleased to be partnered with Lipscomb in focusing the intelligence and capacity of students, faculty and academic leaders on some of the hardest problems of our time,” said David Burns, executive director of the National Center for Civic Engagement and principal investigator for the SENCER initiative.

“Recently the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were announced, and it turns out that Lipscomb was a leader in providing interdisciplinary science education for its students,” said Hutchinson. “The new NGSS standards emphasize learning through inquiry, practice and cross-cutting concepts to build critical thinking skills. These standards will change the way science teaching is done for the next decades -- standards we have been implementing in our Power of Science course since 2008.” 

The Power of Science course has quadrupled its enrollment in the last three years, said Hutchinson.

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Civic engagement is a major component of the Power of Science course. These students went to Radnor Lake to remove invasive plants last fall.