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UW Course Raises Interest, Confidence in Science, Study Shows

November 12, 2014
graduating students seen from above as a group of caps
Nonscience majors at UW gain a lasting, more positive perspective of science through a “Discovering Science” course, new research shows. (UW Photo)

Nonscience majors at the University of Wyoming gain a lasting understanding of and appreciation for science by taking a freshman-level course emphasizing real-world applications, a new study shows.

The “Discovering Science” (LIFE 1002) class taught by Mark Lyford, UW Life Sciences Program director, is the topic of a paper published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society by Lyford and David Reed, who recently earned a Ph.D. through UW’s Program in Ecology and the Department of Atmospheric Science.

The study shows that the course significantly increased students’ interest in and confidence in studying science, while boosting their trust of scientific endeavors, even for those who didn’t earn high marks in the class.

“I feel like science is a bigger part of my life now,” wrote one student, who received a ‘C’ in the class. “It has helped me in daily life by understanding the importance of the natural resources we have, and it has helped me to have a better understanding of taking initiative in doing research on science -- and to realize that science is actually all around me.”

Lyford, since 2003, has taught the course for nonscience majors to meet UW’s science requirement. The class integrates concepts from across scientific disciplines by addressing real-world issues such as energy use and climate change; goes beyond a focus on the scientific method to acknowledge the limitations of science and scientific uncertainty; and explores the connections between science and society.

Through lecture, laboratory and discussion sessions, students engage in a variety of interdisciplinary activities, including experiments they design and implement. For example, students are asked to develop an energy plan for the United States that calls for a 25 percent reduction in either petroleum for transportation or coal for electrical generation, requiring them to research alternative energy sources for cost, feasibility, connections to economics and politics, and potential unintended consequences of their recommendations.

“I love trying to get these nonscience majors -- most of whom have little interest in science, and some of whom have had bad experiences in science classes -- to think differently about science,” Lyford says. “It’s reinvigorating for me to know that we’re making a difference in how these students think -- that we’re helping them grow in their critical thinking skills and their ability to relate science to their daily lives.”

Reed, who taught the course for one semester as a graduate student while Lyford was on another assignment, says he decided to survey students who have taken the class to “find out if it’s actually making a difference.” The survey results show that students’ interest in and comfort with science remains high even three months after they complete the class.

“It’s very rewarding to know that we’re making more of a positive impact than we initially thought,” says Reed, who’s working this semester as a visiting professor of physics at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Lyford, who has been at UW since earning his Ph.D. in botany in 2001, says only about one in every 200 students who take the class decides to change course and major in scientific disciplines. But the fact that nonscience majors gain scientific literacy is the most important outcome.

“For the general public, fostering a positive attitude about science is important to garner support and a level of trust of the scientific endeavors that will play a role in solving global challenges,” Lyford says. “This research shows that it is possible to take nonscience majors and help to positively shape their interactions in science, while maintaining a rigorous course of study.”

The study was supported by the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium.

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