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MAPS Teaching Interest Network



The MAPS Teaching Interest Network Looks at Liberating the STEM Curriculum

By uccapot, on 23 May 2018

A current hot topic in the world of higher education teaching is that of inclusive teaching, that is, how can we design our pedagogy to encompass the needs of students from minority groups. Dr Jason Davies (UCL Arena) led a workshop with the aim of getting MAPS staff to consider how we could make our curriculum more inclusive. In reference to work by Elizabeth Anderson (2012), he stated that:

A decolonised curriculum is one concerned with justice and knowledge-making processes within and beyond the academy. In both the selection of curriculum knowledge and research-based teaching, part of decolonising a curriculum is to engage students, particularly those from marginalised groups, in meaning-making activities to enable them to develop coherent accounts of their lived experiences.

A video introduction to UCL’s Liberating the Curriculum initiative.

After an introduction to UCL’s Liberating the Curriculum initiative, the workshop addressed three themes:

  1. Students want to recognise the possibility of themselves in their discipline.
  2. Students thrive on pedagogic activities that are relevant and meaningful to them.
  3. Students can excel when doing assessment that connects to their existing understanding.

The first theme focussed on students recognising that they are part of their discipline. Examples of how this could be implemented in modules or programmes included providing brief profiles of famous scientists from minority backgrounds, with pictures. A good example is the A good example is the Royal Society of Chemistry’s “175 Faces of Chemistry”. Students should also be made to feel part of the subject’s family, by providing hot questions or votes on Moodle at the beginning of a course, which the lecturer revisits at the end (e.g. “what is your favourite popular science book and why?”). There was a lot of positivity towards the ideas raised; however, Jason pointed out that any highlighting of scientists from minority groups should be done sensitively and we should avoid assigning spokespeople for groups.

Theme two honed in on how students grapple with the curriculum’s content and the implications for how we can tailor our own teaching to this. Naturally, there was some discussion on this topic, particularly about PowerPoint lecturing versus “chalk and talk”. Of course, there is no right answer to this question and it is very subject-dependent; although, in the case of the latter, care should be taken to avoid bad handwriting! It was suggested that more inclusivity could be achieved by asking students how they prefer to learn but thinking about why they would like to learn in that particular way. The discussion then led on to the topic of students from similar backgrounds forming cliques. Should these cliques be split and what benefit would this have? For the #UCLChemAirPoll air pollution project in the Department of Chemistry, mixing students of different backgrounds has proved successful as many international students said it had helped them integrate better and brought them out of their shells. However, it was also suggested that, conversely, it might be worth trying to group students with poor English skills into the same tutorial groups, as this might increase their engagement and confidence to join in and speak up. A conclusion was that forced integration is wearying and can shut people down, but no integration means that language skills don’t develop as much as when people work together. Having a mix of “assigned groups” (integration) across the curriculum but still with plenty of opportunity to be amongst groups with the same native language, similar ease with cultural knowledge and so on, seemed to be a pragmatic solution.

The last theme brought up some lively discussion on how students should feel that they can make mistakes as, after all, that’s a key part of the learning process! Assessment is inextricably linked to grades, so a way to go would be to have zero-credit assessment. As an example, students on Natural Science programmes at UCL carry out a zero-credit module that focuses on transferable skills, such as infographic and poster design, as well as wiki writing. The students are mentored by postgraduate students and generally really enjoy the module. Another idea raised was the move from standard lab practicals to those where neither the student nor the staff know the outcome: a true experiment! Inquiry-based work would train students to think more like researchers, a key part of UCL’s Connected Curriculum initiative; however, it was pointed out that some standard practicals would still be necessary for improving lab skills.

Outside the lab, assessment such as coursework was discussed. Jason suggested that time-intensive work should be considered carefully, in particular for students who have other commitments, such as being a carer or a part-time job to support their studies. This led to the issue of students from poorer backgrounds being raised: how can circumstances be made easier for them? Possibilities could be setting up a fund for them to attend field trips, but while such initiatives might help, the fact that they might not have the same networks after university as more privileged students could prove problematic.

Overall, the workshop provided plenty of food for thought on making STEM curricula at UCL more inclusive. If you give any of these suggestions a try and want to let us know how it went, or have any other suggestions, please let Jason know by contacting him on j.p.davies@ucl.ac.uk.

References & Further Reading

The MAPS Teaching Interest Network Kicked Off by Showcasing What We Do Well

By uccapot, on 25 September 2017

Despite it being a busy week of preparations for the upcoming term, teaching fellows and academics from the Faculty of Mathematical & Physical Sciences gathered to hear the teaching successes from each department and gain inspiration from each other.

Connected Curriculum framework flowerAfter an introduction to the Network by the chair, Prof. Dilly Fung (UCL Arena) gave an overview of the UCL Connected Curriculum initiative, as well as highlighting the opportunities available from Arena for teaching staff, such as fellowships (accredited by the Higher Education Academy) and funding for pedagogical projects. It was emphasised that, while the Connected Curriculum strands need not necessarily be treated as a definitive checklist, students should be given the opportunity to learn through active thinking, discovery and research throughout their degree programme, and that the curriculum should be inclusive and global. More information on the Connected Curriculum initiative can be found on the website and in Dilly’s book: “A Connected Curriculum for Higher Education” (2017, UCL Press).

Next up was Dr Paul Bartlett from the Department of Physics & Astronomy, who continued the theme of students as researchers. He described how, from year 1, students in the department undertake research roles by creating new undergraduate practicals, building up to completing a research project in the third year with publishable results.

Following on from Paul was a “commercial break”, with Dr Stephen Potts from the Department of Chemistry talked about the department’s adoption of the e-book platform, Bibliotech. After a year’s trial of providing e-texts to chemistry students, the impact on their reading habits was notable as they tended to read more around the subject. The chemistry texts are available to all UCL students and staff via the Bibliotech website.

Bringing the discussion to integrative learning was Dr Ali Mozaffari from the Virtual Department of Natural Sciences. He described the support mechanisms for Natural Science students relating to introductory mathematics and then went on to describe a vertical module in the programme that helped develop scientific research skills (see the Moodle page for more information). Despite being a zero-credit module, the best team is awarded a Dean’s Prize. It was interesting to note how an element of competition could really increase engagement with the activity.

The last (but by no means least) of the departmental talks featured a double-act of Dr Elinor Jones and Dr Matina Rassias from the Department of Statistical Science, who described their strategy for teaching statistics to students from other disciplines. They tried a flipped-classroom method, where students would watch a self-paced video created using Articulate Storyline software (available to UCL staff at a reduced rate) prior to the lecture. The software has substantially more functionality that most standard packages, allowing quizzes to be embedded, for example. The use of videos freed up face-to-face teaching time for workshop-style activities. They will try a more conventional lecturing approach to compare the impact of the flipped classroom method in the coming year.

To round off the session, we had the second of our invited speakers, Prof. Andrea Sella from the Department of Chemistry, who talked about the citizen science project: #UCLChemAirPoll. The project arose from the problem that undergraduates were not getting a proper feeling for research from their practicals because there was a defined “right” answer. This project changed that perspective. The first-years were given the group task of making diffusion tubes that use a reagent to capture the nitrogen dioxide in the air. They were sent to primary schools to talk about air pollution and aske the pupils where they should site the tubes. Four weeks later, the students collected the tubes and measured the NO2 content of the air using colourimetry and the Beer-Lambert law, exploiting the fact that the captured NO2 forms a highly-coloured azo dye with certain reagents. The project really opened the students’ eyes to research, teaching and key environmental issues, as their reflective reports demonstrated. Many were keen to continue the project into their second year.

Overall, the event was well received and some useful links were made between departments. The Teaching Interest Network will be holding more events in the future, so keep an eye on the website for details.