Science Teaching: Online course offerings continue to evolve

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk

Call it blended. Call it hybrid. Call it the future of science education?

It’s no surprise that the number of courses in the College of Science with an online component has more than doubled in the last couple of years. More than 1,000 students took part in an online science class during the 2012-13 academic year, up from the 508 in 2011-12.

These numbers are expected to grow even more rapidly in the future.

However, many College of Science classes are not offered online due to their hands-on approach. The historic labs in Wetherill and Brown cannot be replicated at home.

Ellen Gundlach, a longtime statistics instructor who has been teaching online classes since 2007, is on the forefront of courses that combine online studies as well as physical, in-class work. Her Statistics and Society course (STAT 113) meets once a week after students work through online lectures and initial practice that give them a basic understanding of the material beforehand. That material is then fine-tuned and applied to interactive activities with help from peers and the instructor in an open classroom in the basement of Hicks Undergraduate Library that is set up with round tables, wheeled chairs, plenty of floor space and white boards across the walls.

And it’s more fun to shoot gummy bear catapults and roll pig dice in a group setting anyway.

Ellen Gundlach

Statistics instructor Ellen Gundlach

“We use gummy bear catapults to teach experimental design and measurement. The pig dice help explain probability,” says Gundlach, who adds that the tiny plastic pigs have six unequal ways of landing on a table: back, snout, sides, hooves and tail. “These activities help the students see that statistics is an active and interactive field, and that communicating statistics effectively with other people is important.”

In spring 2013, she taught 60 students in one hybrid section while guiding 80 students through stat courses that were 100 percent online. Gundlach, who also teaches traditional lecture hall classes of more than 300 students, expects the online and hybrid numbers to increase.

“Within the Department of Statistics, we’re introducing more hybrid courses over the next year or two,” says Gundlach, who is teaching two hybrid sections this semester. “The students seem to enjoy this format, once they know how it works. The more often they see it, the more comfortable they will be with it, just like they were when online courses were first introduced. I think students learn better when they take more responsibility for their own learning.”

Statistics and Society, which is geared toward non-science majors, primarily attracts liberal arts and hospitality and tourism management students, Gundlach says. For both the hybrid and online-only
courses, she records her lectures using Adobe Presenter on her laptop computer from home. She tries to keep the recordings shorter than 15 minutes so students can digest the concepts more easily.

These online lectures are also available to traditional students who might miss classes due to illness or simply need to listen to a more difficult concept again for better understanding.

Gundlach says the weekly hybrid meetings are a flurry of activity. She is tired after the classroom sessions from all of her “running around,” but she is also energized from the one-on-one contact with students and watching them help one another to master difficult concepts.

“That’s the most exciting section to teach,” Gundlach says. “It’s a very active class. Everybody’s up and moving and writing things on the boards around the room. I really have to think on my feet because they’ve heard the lecture before they even come to class. I’m dealing with their questions or problem areas at that time, teaching what they need when they need it. I get a much better understanding of how students learn by interacting with them in this way.”

The blended class concept should catch on even more quickly thanks to teachers like Adam Szewciw, a 2013 Purdue physics graduate. He was hired in August as Crown Point (Ind.) High School’s first physics teacher to teach exclusively in the online and traditional classroom environment. He teaches six sections of Conceptual Physics, which looks at physics from a nonmathematical approach. He admits that the online part of the course has had some challenges in the early going. Both he and his students are adjusting.

But Szewciw believes blended science courses have a bright future. Online components will be a part of many, but the computer can never replace the education that comes from handson, physical experiments and activities.

“I think blended courses will grow,” he says. “At the university, most courses I took had some online component. But what activities should be online and what should be done in the classroom? There’s no good answer for that question. I think it depends on the kids you have, the specific course you’re teaching, the resources available –– so many factors. I, like anyone who teaches, am learning as I go.”

Adam Szewciw

Physics alumnuns Adam Szewciw (BS '13) teaches hybrid physics classes at Crown Point (Ind.) High School.