By BECKY GILLETTE
In a traditional college classroom, the teacher wrote things on the blackboard and gave lectures with students expected to memorize the information in order to pass tests. But that is no longer the best way to teach college students, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, and it isn’t the type of education most needed in today’s knowledge economy.
Jackson State University recently received a $2.98 million First in the World grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help faculty develop better teaching techniques that employ the use of information technology to promote engagement, collaboration and experiential learning. The goal of the shift in teaching techniques is to stimulate enthusiasm among minority students—who are scarce in STEM careers–about studying STEM fields as a path to good employment.
“This grant provides JSU a unique opportunity to continue the great work we’ve begun in engaging more of our students in STEM fields,” said JSU President Dr. Carolyn W. Meyers, a mechanical engineer. “This project is an extension of our efforts in cyber learning and quality and innovation in effective teaching. JSU is uniquely poised to lead in these areas because of our commitment to addressing challenges facing underrepresented students in all disciplines, especially STEM fields.”
Dr. Paul Tchounwou, associate dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at JSU, came up with the initial concept for the grant proposal, and will serve as principal investigator and project director.
“It is an honor that the Jackson State project is only one of 17 funded proposals nationwide,” Tchounwou said. “Our project aims to transform the learning environment at the university by focusing on two outcomes – encouraging enthusiasm about STEM across all fields of learning and supporting innovative and creative teaching initiatives that engage students in STEM fields.”
Dr. Richard Aló, dean of the JSU College of Science, Engineering and Technology, said education in the United States has been broken for some time.
“If you look at high school graduates, only 33 percent of the American population has preparation to enter college,” he said. “The situation is even worse with African-Americans and Latinos.”
All JSU freshmen are given iPads when they enter school. Those are not toys, but critical tools to be used in the classroom. Traditionally a student taking a class like calculus might have to purchase a textbook that costs $285. That same book downloaded onto an iPad might only cost $10.
“One, that saves a lot of money,” Aló said. “Two, as a professor is talking, students can write their notes on the iPad or make diagrams. It is all digitalized and saved for student at a later time. If a professor would like to explain a particular topic, he can direct students to a YouTube video. There are a lot of beautiful educational videos on YouTube that are very useful in the classroom.”
Aló said this grant will help teachers hone their teaching techniques to give students, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds, a better chance of grooming their talents for being able to collaborate and learn together, and share their knowledge.
The shift in teaching is more than just taking the highest advantage of modern information technology. It also involves being able to collaborate, and draw from different scientific disciplines to solve problems. An example Aló gives is that to combat a certain cancer, you need to look at “… masses of information about numerous factors such as the environment, behavior, biology, physiology and genetics.
“Education today is multi-disciplinary,” Aló said. “It is important to teach students how to solve problems, not just rote memorization. That requires changing the teaching and learning environment in colleges. With a smart mobile device in my hand, why memorize all the information? On the other hand, I need to know how to problem solve, and pool information from various disciplines to solve the problem. The real objective of a college education is to learn how to work in a collaborative, multi-disciplinary system to organize information, explore, discover, organize and then create new knowledge.”
Big Data is of great interest to business who are using it to develop better sales and markets. Aló said it also necessitates a change in the way students are taught.
Another teaching innovation possible because of information technology is the virtual lab. Instead of being an actual physical lab, students can learn by watching a video.
Physics is a gatekeeper course, one that is difficult for many students and that keeps many away from studying STEM fields, Aló said. Some students have a hard time with the labs. To be able to teach these principles in a virtual lab can be a tremendous asset. Instead of students just looking at a bunch of numbers, they can study it on a visualization wall.
Aló said this type of teaching is not just the future of education—but vital to the economy.
“Our economy is now based on knowledge,” he said. “It is not based on the auto or steel industry, but knowledge. That is the future of the U.S. when you look at us competing with the rest of the world. It also involves solving problems like how we reduce obesity in Mississippi. To create knowledge from Big Data, you explore the data, discover something from this data, and from there go through the analytic techniques to create the knowledge. Then knowledge goes to the business that has to make a decision.”