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Flipping the Classroom for a Better STEM Outcome
By J Freeman Posted:February 8, 2014 0 Comments
Over the past month, many policymakers and news organizations have lauded the efforts of dozens of nonprofit, business and other interest groups that have worked diligently over the years to increase student awareness and preparedness in STEM subjects. These groups help motivate students by providing hands-on learning opportunities that give them the opportunity to interact directly with a STEM education that seems real, vital, relatable and interesting. Whether it is building robots, learning to code, conducting experiments or going on field trips, these extracurricular efforts define a working model for how to get students better engaged in STEM learning. Since studies show that engaging students from young ages is an important part in preparing for STEM subjects, these efforts have greatly helped; however, it remains a fact that students receive the majority of their education in formal classrooms during school hours. In many cases, especially in middle and high school, these classes can devolve into frantic note-taking sessions anchored by a long, boring lecture, but a new style of classroom may help shake up the script on traditional learning and give students a greater stake in their own futures.

Created for undergraduates, this new type of classroom is known as a Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (more commonly referred to as a SCALE-UP classroom). SCALE-UP was developed by Robert Beichner at North Carolina State University with support from the United States Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer and Pasco Scientific. In this form of classroom, students are not lecture participants. Instead, the lecture portion of the class takes place outside the classroom, with students responsible for acquiring the material on their own through whatever sources they deem appropriate. Beichner allows students to use sources as various as textbooks, YouTube videos and Wikipedia so that individuals can learn the material in a format that most directly speaks to their learning styles. In class, students work in small groups to solve difficult, hands-on problems. In short, the homework has become the classwork, and the lecture material is now what students do own their own time.

Beichner advocates this change due to his remaining of the teacher's role. "What's the role of a teacher? To dispense, transmit information? Well, that was true 15 years ago before there was Google, but now I can pull out my cell phone and find something that is more up to date than what the lecturer is talking about.". But changing classroom activities is not the only step Beichner has taken to insure that his students succeed.

Each student works in a small group, with at least one of those students being above average. That way, that student can help his or her struggling peers master the material. Students may be more likely to ask for assistance or to ask questions of a fellow student when they do not understand something rather than interrupting a lecturing professor in the middle of a crowded classroom. Beichner also recommends that students work at tables that are seven feet in diameter: large enough to facilitate hands-on work, but small enough that conversation is encouraged without shouting. The SCALE-UP classroom further encourages collaboration by awarding groups extra points if the entire team scores above 80 percent on a test. The model also allows groups to fire students who are no longer pulling their own weight, forcing that student to complete the rest of the class work on his or her own (Beichner has noted that these instances are typically rare). Through this, the SCALE-UP classroom has livened up classrooms and encouraged discussion, but it has also achieved more concrete results.

Students who have attended a SCALE-UP style class typically have better problem-solving skills, higher conceptual understanding of the material, improved attitude towards class and a much lower failure rate for women, minorities and other at-risk student populations. In short, many of the problems that typically hamper STEM success seem to be answered by the SCALE-UP, particularly in terms of mastery of material and inclusion of groups typically left behind in STEM learning.

These sorts of innovations in classroom learning cannot come too soon. According to Facts of Science Education survey published by Bayer Corporation in October 2013, half of Fortune 1000 companies said that they had trouble recruiting qualified STEM graduates with two- or four-year college degrees. Even the White House has promoted these types of active learning environments to better engage students. This is not to say that there is no place for traditional lectures or that all classrooms should immediately adopt the SCALE-UP model. But, in an age when still far too many students get left behind in STEM subjects, whether through a lack of interest or lack of preparation to enter collegiate level STEM work, an active engagement model like SCALE-UP offers educators one more tool to use to even out the playing field for every student in America.