The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

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From Observation to Quantification: A Reflection on Spiritan Pedagogy

by Matt Kostek, Assistant Professor at Duquesne University, Rangos School of Health Sciences, Physical Therapy Department$fullname

Begin with the end in mind is a mantra worthy of reflection before beginning any meaningful project.  Yet in teaching, as in life, there are times when we just observe.  If uncertain of the goal, observation not only yields discoveries but can help us learn the landscape or define the question.  In teaching, however, we are told that we need concise learning objectives.  Objectives can be measured as a learning outcome, which is important not just because the accrediting bodies tell us so, but because outcomes tells us if we are accomplishing our goal – student learning.  To improve outcomes, we can change our teaching:  modify presentation style or content, add new assignments, or use analogies to which students can relate.  This is something that all good professors are trying to accomplish to varying degrees in different classes.  This was my initial interest when I heard about discussions on campus regarding Spiritan Pedagogy.  I think it was an email that I normally would have just deleted, but because it seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn about the Spiritan Charism and about pedagogy I decided to attend.

The discussion groups and panel presentations were informative and intriguing and upon reflection, led to new insights.  I thought I found something useful but was not sure what to do with it.  Some of the concepts like openness to the spirit, global concern, and concern for the poor seemed like noble topics and ideas that would be good to instill in this generation of college students.  But I didn’t see how I was going to use these ideas in my basic life-science lecture class of over 100 students.   The discussion groups, for me, were an idea generator.   I set out to trial a few of these ideas with my large lecture class.

I attempted to incorporate physiologic descriptions of organ function with new examples– Spiritan inspired examples.  For instance, I described kidney or pulmonary (lung) function coupled with the fact that most insurance companies do not pay for pulmonary rehabilitation or that a disproportionate number of African Americans suffer from chronic kidney disease and that their socioeconomic status is likely contributing to disease severity.  Keep in mind, these issues are not typically discussed when teaching cellular organ function at this level.  So these stories were mostly side notes to the main lecture topics.  My idea was to bring awareness of current situations that affect the poor and under-served in a context that relates to human physiology.  The lectures seemed to go well and I received some positive feedback in the form of questions and discussion during and after those lectures.  I did not attempt, however, to quantify outcomes, it was exploratory and I was observing.  There were no test questions relating to these topics and no request to address this on my SES (student evaluation survey) reports.  Yet, I did receive a few comments expressing confusion as to why these topics were even mentioned, they seemed distracting, and didn’t appear on tests.  Thus, while stimulating thought I was unable to convey with clarity the import of these issues in the context of human physiology.

What I observed using Spiritan pedagogy inspired techniques is that they are feasible in a large classroom.  But if I want to know about the effectiveness of these techniques, I will need to consider what I am trying to accomplish.  If I want students to understand and assimilate these ideas or, at the very least, not confuse them then I need them on board with the idea and the intended outcome.  If the examples are to be seen as important and relevant, then they should be evaluated (e.g. test or quiz questions).  Evaluation emphasizes the importance, encourages understanding through study, and gives a quantifiable result.  The result can be used to modify the approach.  This “closes the loop” as our accreditors might like to say.  Spiritan pedagogical techniques can, I think, be incorporated into any classroom but until we know what we are trying to accomplish, it will be difficult for us or our students to know when we have reached the goal.


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Teaching Collaborative Undergraduate Research Skills – A STEM Experience

STEM Matt Srnec 2

Image courtesy of Matthew Srnec.

By Matthew N. Srnec, PhD Student, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Duquesne University

As many teacher-scholars are aware, team-based learning and collaborative activities are a vital part of today’s learning environment.  As traditional lectures transition to flipped-classroom approaches, collaborative learning has become a very powerful tool.  However, in my judgment, one discipline in particular struggles to incorporate collaborative, team-based learning, and that is the sciences.   There are plenty of exceptions to this trend, but as a whole, scientists stick to the traditional approach – think of all those equations, slide after slide after slide!

My own work in chemistry has allowed me to experience both the individual and collaborative side of science.  I am not the traditional bench-top chemist, wearing lab coat and goggles, which comes to mind when someone hears the word chemistry.  I spend the majority of my time working with computational tools aimed at predicting interesting properties of materials before time and resources are invested in making them on the bench-top.  In my remaining time, I think critically about my teaching strategies in general chemistry, physical chemistry, as well as my role as the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s first National Science Foundation (NSF) Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) graduate fellow.

This post is focused on teaching collaborative undergraduate research skills in the sciences, which I have been actively involved in the last two years as the NSF STEM fellow.  Reflecting on the ultimate goal of this STEM project, I was reminded of a previous blog entry on Duquesne’s The Flourishing Academic by Dr. Sarah Wallace, assistant professor of speech-language pathology at Duquesne University.  Dr. Wallace shared her experiences with team-based learning and referenced a powerful quote by Helen Keller – “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

Undergraduate research in the sciences is often carried out in a one-on-one setting with a faculty member or graduate student.  Here, the undergraduate is informed of the overall goals of the project, is trained in the basic techniques, and is then expected to independently collect and interpret results.  However, an important component of research is the ability to communicate those findings via writing and speaking.  These skills are not frequently taught to students carrying out their research, and even less frequently are they refined through interaction with peers.  It is this collaborative, team-based learning approach to undergraduate research experience that makes our program unique and sufficiently prepares our undergraduates for future careers in science.

The development and refining of undergraduate research students’ communication skills are achieved through our summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), Undergraduate Research Program (URP), and Student Research Experience (SRE) programs.  Here, our Center for Computational Sciences holds collaborative group meetings for approximately 20 undergraduate research students over the course of a 10-week program.  Along with carrying out their projects in the lab, each student gives four 10-15 minute presentations and writes four 2-page papers pertaining to their project.  These presentations and papers are structured according to the scientific method: phase 1 – background, hypothesis, and specific aims; phase 2 – previous work published in the literature; phase 3 – methodology and limitations/error analysis; phase 4 – results and interpretation.

As the students present their projects to their peers, graduate students, and faculty, a collaborative, team-based learning atmosphere is incorporated into the research experience.  Along with refining their presentation and writing skills, students are asked questions regarding their project and obtain valuable feedback (through the use of comment sheets) for improving experiments and overall presentation.  Similarly, the students’ writing skills are refined through the submission of written documents, structured in the same sense as the presentations, to their research advisor and graduate students.  Here, they obtain valuable feedback on their writing skills and walk away with a drafted manuscript of their project at the end of the 10-week program.

While some laboratory experiences may predominantly remain one-on-one in nature, this STEM experience aims to address the absence of collaborative, team-based research skill development and is a very unique program for mentors and mentees alike.  As the STEM graduate fellow, this teaching experience provides me the opportunity to advise several summer undergraduates on their research projects, organize group meetings, lead the student presentation Q/A sessions, tabulate the results from the feedback sheets, and draft Journal of Chemical Education manuscripts in order to communicate our approach and findings to others in the scientific community.  The structure of this summer program has also been implemented in the chemistry curriculum at Duquesne with the 490H/W (research for credit) course.

Matthew N. Srnec is a fourth year graduate student in Duquesne’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, working under Dr. Jeffry D. Madura in the Center for Computational Sciences.  He received his bachelors in chemistry from Washington and Jefferson College.