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UW Chemistry Teacher’s Active-Learning Shift Draws Rave Reviews

June 2, 2017
man and woman in lab
UW Department of Chemistry Associate Professor John Hoberg works in his lab with a student. Hoberg’s participation in UW’s Science Initiative led him to revamp the way he teaches a sophomore-level organic chemistry class, with positive results. (UW Photo)

In more than two decades as a chemistry instructor and researcher, University of Wyoming Associate Professor John Hoberg has developed an effective teaching style that draws strong reviews from students.

But, as a result of his participation in the first class of the Learning Actively Mentoring Program (LAMP), part of UW’s Science Initiative, Hoberg revisited and dramatically revised his teaching approach. And, judging from his students’ performance and reviews in the spring semester, the changes are a resounding success.

“I have been teaching for almost 30 years, and this was one of the most exciting semesters I have had,” says Hoberg, who applied the changes to his sophomore-level organic chemistry class. “Even someone like me, who is pretty set in my ways and has strong feelings about the best ways for students to learn, can always find ways to do things better. Participating in LAMP brought about modifications in my teaching method for the better, no question.”

Hoberg was one of 22 UW faculty members and graduate students in the inaugural cohort of LAMP, a yearlong faculty development program designed to help teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) incorporate active-learning techniques and methods. The program included a visit last summer to an active-learning conference in Minnesota and monthly discussions with colleagues. The second LAMP class kicks off this month.

The Science Initiative -- supported by Gov. Matt Mead and the Wyoming Legislature, and endorsed by a governor-appointed panel of accomplished scientists, industry leaders and other professionals -- aims to transform science education and improve student success at UW and across the state, while creating world-class facilities to propel research on issues important to the state and nation. The initiative signals a dramatic change in the way the foundational sciences are taught at the university, moving from traditional lectures and laboratories to an active-learning format.

The centerpiece of the Science Initiative is a planned $100 million building on the north end of campus, next to the new Michael B. Enzi STEM Facility and the now-under-construction Engineering Education and Research Building. It will include state-of-the-art facilities to support innovation and research in advanced scientific imaging and integrative biology, along with UW’s first suite of large-scale active-learning classrooms (150-200 students each). Construction could begin in 2018.

Hoberg says his new teaching approach doesn’t work in a traditional theater-style classroom. The classrooms needed for active learning -- generally flat, open rooms with round tables -- are in short supply on the UW campus until the new Science Initiative building is complete. At present, there are a few in the new Enzi STEM Facility, a couple in the Classroom Building and one in the Energy Innovation Center, none for big classes of more than 100 students.

“My biggest takeaway from our visit to Minnesota was the importance of the facilities,” Hoberg says. “Seeing a building designed with an active-learning mindset helped me visualize how I could modify the way I teach my course.”

‘Flipped’ Instruction

Hoberg secured one of the suitable rooms in the UW Classroom Building for his spring organic chemistry class, which had 47 students. Seated at tables in groups, the students -- rather than taking notes while Hoberg lectured -- worked together to find solutions to questions they brought to class based upon brief presentations by Hoberg at the end of the previous class session. Hoberg moved around the classroom to help the groups as needed.

This “flipped” approach -- using the last 10-15 minutes of the 50-minute period to introduce a concept, then assigning students to bring questions to address at the start of the next class period -- proved successful, Hoberg says. But it took a leap of faith to deviate from his old, proven, lecture-based approach.

“I was nervous that this would be an epic failure -- that maybe the students wouldn’t participate,” he says. “But I knew that students learn better when they have to figure things out. And, in the end, it went very well. The students were fantastic, and my nervousness about them not participating was unfounded. There are some things I can improve on, but I’d say it was a success.”

Judging from their course evaluations, the students agree.

“The concept of switching a class from a lecture-based class to more of an interactive class worked very well,” one student wrote. “I think I learned the material way better this semester than last semester because of the hands-on approach. I would rather all of my classes be taught like this.”

“Bringing in our own examples and working with others at our table definitely helped me stay more engaged with the material versus standard lecture-style classes,” another wrote. “I honestly got more from when we did practice problems at our table than when Dr. Hoberg lectured material in front of the whole class.”

“This way of learning led to much more interaction between Dr. Hoberg and other students as well,” another wrote. “I think that all science classes should be more like this.”

Catalyzing Change

Rachel Watson, a lecturer in UW’s Department of Molecular Biology and interim director of LAMP, says the innovative approach taken by Hoberg reflects a commitment made by the Department of Chemistry and its department head, Dave Anderson, to “truly invest in catalyzing departmental change in teaching and learning.

“The Science Initiative represents a tremendous opportunity to engage students in new ways across all of the STEM disciplines at the university,” Watson says. “Dr. Hoberg’s wonderful work is just the start of a transformation involving dozens of UW teachers and researchers that will lift our STEM programs to new levels of excellence, ultimately benefitting science education across the state as well as Wyoming’s economy.”

Hoberg acknowledges that this inaugural class might have succeeded in part because the students knew up front that they were going to be asked to participate at a higher level than they did in the fall-semester class he taught. But he sees great potential to use the new approach not only in smaller, sophomore-level classes -- he’ll teach another “flipped” organic chemistry class this fall -- but also in larger classes of more than 100 students.

To do that, however, he and other UW faculty members will need the active-learning classrooms planned in the Science Initiative facility, which he sees as a great opportunity for Wyoming to distinguish itself as a leader in scientific education and discovery.

“There aren’t a lot of universities building buildings designed specifically for this,” Hoberg says. “We have a perfect chance to do something that will be critical for the state’s future. We have to start training our students to build other economic engines to help Wyoming’s economy evolve, and this building and the Science Initiative are key mechanisms to do that.”

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