Gateway to Engagement

Summer 2012

Associate Professor Michael Falk’s Computation and Programming for Materials Scientists and Engineers class doesn’t look like your typical freshman lecture. In fact, Falk isn’t even talking. Instead, the 20 students in his class sit at desktop computers and talk among themselves as they work out algorithms just assigned by their professor.

Falk and his teaching assistant walk throughout the room, offering assistance when asked.

It’s a far cry from the introductory computer classes Falk used to teach years ago at the University of Michigan. “There, I’d lecture three times a week to a class of 220 students,” he says. “Any kind of one-on-one time a student would get was during office hours or with a TA.”

But with this new approach, students watch podcasts of lectures and then apply what they’ve learned to class-time activities. “If students are going to do something at home,” says Falk, “it’s easier for them to watch a lecture, which is more or less a passive activity, and have people [here] for them when they’re actually trying to solve a problem.”

Welcome to the Freshman Lecture 2.0, a new approach to teaching introductory course work to students with STEM, or science, technology, engineering, or math, majors. It’s part of the university’s Gateway Science Initiative (GSI), a multidimensional program to improve and enrich the learning of gateway sciences at Johns Hopkins for undergraduate and graduate students.

Nationally, roughly one-third of students entering college aspire to STEM majors, but less than half go on to earn a degree in a STEM field. At Johns Hopkins, the rate is better, with 63 percent of entering students interested in science or technology and 57 percent graduating with a related degree. But that percentage could be higher.

“Before college, science for most kids means fun, hands-on learning-studying insects, building bridges with Popsicle sticks, and making pinhole cameras with coffee cans,” noted university Provost Lloyd B. Minor in his introductory remarks at a GSI symposium in January. “But by the time these kids get to college, the fun science fair projects and experiments that led to baking soda volcanoes are long gone, replaced by the large lecture hall. Lost in the grind of facts and formulas is the thrill of discovery.”

The Gateway Science Initiative hopes to retain that thrill of discovery by not only re-imagining the lecture but also by using class time to work on projects with the students’ academic interests clearly in mind.

In Falk’s class, a recent project had students, some of whom hope to pursue bioengineering degrees, modeling the response of HIV patients to antiretroviral therapy. “Part of the GSI is to try to think a little bit more about how we’re introducing students to introductory material so they can see why it’s important to them,” says Falk. “They’re motivated to learn the material because they understand why it’s relevant to their future careers.”

Falk, who sits on the university’s GSI committee, says post-class surveys will be conducted among STEM majors to measure students’ reactions to the new approach.

So far, students seem to have noticed the difference. “It’s so different than just having lectures,” says freshman Hannah Jin. “After learning the information, we don’t have to ask, ‘Well, how would I ever use this?’ We just apply it in the next class.”

Back in Falk’s computer lab, students are busy collaborating on another program as the professor surveys the room. “The hardest thing about teaching this way is convincing yourself that you don’t have to be doing something all of the time, to let the students run with things for a while.”

Which, in this new paradigm, is exactly the idea.