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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Teachers studying how best to teach

National studies show as few as 21 percent of students are proficient in science, so the UA, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and NASA, are examining the ways students learn the subject.

This endeavor is becoming more important as the national science proficiency level dips lower and is aided by programs to teach undergraduates how to be science teachers.

Earlier this month, results from a national science test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that not only were students’ proficiency levels dropping, but also found that only 1 percent performed at the advanced level.

“”It’s certainly a reflection of who we get,”” said Edward Prather, an associate professor of astronomy and executive director of the Center for Astronomy Education.

Prather has been tasked to do specific research to develop new formulas for teaching science.

“”I think that when you pose the question, ‘How do UA students learn science?’ It’s an impossible question for me to answer,”” Prather said.

Prather said the nearly $2 million grant is based out of the UA with adjuncts throughout the nation, which works to assess the proficiency of students coming into college.

More advanced high school coursework, a history of education in suburban schools and higher levels of parental education also influenced higher test scores in students, according to the January study. The assessment focused 25 percent on earth and space sciences and the other 75 percent divided evenly between physical and life sciences.

Prather conducted multiple-choice Scantron surveys before lectures and discovered the baseline of science knowledge for students was 30 percent. With carefully crafted lectures, those numbers rose to 50 percent. When teachers implimented lecture tutorials and ranking systems as opposed to only lectures, those scores rose to 70 percent on average — then shot to 80 percent when students used a clicker and did not have to use a Scantron sheet.

“”It’s the idea that a student can improve two or three letter grades by (professors) lecturing a little less,”” Prather said. “”It can’t be done by lecturing more cleverly or for longer.””

Some lecture methods include lecture tutorials, a crafted series of questions to eliminate  misconceptions and engage students in higher-level learning, and ranking tasks, which direct students to place things in order to test knowledge of a topic from several angles. The methods, first utilized in astronomy classes, are now being used in geosciences classes, according to Prather, who teaches a natural sciences general education course called The Physical Universe.

The UA College of Science’s Science Teacher Preparatory Program aims to train its students in these types of teaching methods to counteract the poor results of recent proficiency studies.

“”I think that the education issue is very complex,”” said Vicente Talanquer, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a professor in the Science Teacher Preparatory Program. “”We receive a lot of students with a wide variety of backgrounds, who are very prepared, ready to move to upper level classes and a proportionate number of students that don’t even have the minimum skills for someone entering the university.””

The study seems to reinforce that critical need — the latest math, economics and reading tests all yielded higher “”proficient”” percentages for students than did science – 26, 42, and 38 percents, respectively.

Ten years ago, the UA decided to move secondary school science preparation from the College of Education to the College of Science. They hired three people, one for biology, one from physics and one from chemistry — Talanquer — “”to improve science teachers and also improve what we were doing on the university level.””

Talanquer said during the last 10 years, participation in the program has grown to twice what it was when the program was in the College of Education. But even with this progress, Talanquer feels the program can have greater impact.

“”What we have seen in the past few years is students having much better aptitudes toward learning chemistry, or how they value learning the science,”” he said. “”We have seen significant changes in students’ view how chemistry could be useful in their future careers.””

The program is a major within the College of Science. Students needn’t apply, only declare it to be fact. Around 80 percent of those who graduate from the program have stayed in education, many in Tucson or in Arizona, according to Talanquer.

“”People that want to find a job, they can easily find a job if they want to become science teachers. Even with the economy, even with the budget crunch, the demand hasn’t gone down,”” Talanquer said. “”There is a critical need for science teachers in the state and in the United States.””

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