Engaging Beginners Using Complex Concepts

Amy Mann - Delaware Bay

By Amy Mann
Environmental Technologies Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

I have a confession to make. I am not a trained educator. I spent thirteen years working in the engineering field before starting here at Delaware Tech.

Without a formal education in teaching theory, I entered this job believing that basic concepts had to be mastered before higher level ideas could successfully be introduced to students. I could not imagine introducing beginner level students to complex engineering tools or concepts

This is an idea that I believe most people share. I am extremely grateful that I have been part of a project that has proved me wrong.

During my first semester here at Delaware Tech, I was asked to help develop a new experimental course designed to capture the enthusiasm of STEM students in developmental math or English courses. The concept behind this course is that providing developmental STEM students with hands on opportunities to work with high tech equipment before they meet the prerequisites for their core courses will increase student engagement and persistence.

I was terrified by this request since I hadn’t even taught a course yet, let alone developed one. I was also afraid to say no. I signed on to the project and anxiously attended the first meeting.

I was intimidated as I sat in a room with experienced teachers who understood the complex theories behind words like pedagogy, assessment, and scaffolded learning–and used these words to describe their ideas. However, after attending a few meetings I realized that I understood the basics without formal instruction and was able to effectively contribute to course development. I was well on my way to understanding and applying these concepts. My ideas were met with enthusiasm and incorporated into the course.

I have had the privilege of teaching this course this semester. It is called SCI 107: Explorations on the Delaware Bay. The students this semester have developed Geographic Information System (GIS) maps, studied the effects of heavy metal exposure on hatching brine shrimp, and used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and DNA analysis to identify fecal coliform contamination in water.

We have successfully used scientific journal articles in class, and the students presented their findings in a poster session. The students have actively participated in each of these activities before taking a single core course for their major. They have learned basic scientific and engineering concepts through application. They are excited to come to class each week and I have enjoyed watching them blossom.

I am not arguing that teaching basic concepts is not important. I strongly believe that all students must graduate with a strong conceptual foundation to be effective and successful in their chosen field. My students have gaps in knowledge that must be filled through core courses, just as I must continue to learn basic education theory in order to become a more effective teacher.

I am simply suggesting that incorporating complex, hands-on activities can get students excited about basic concepts and can be more engaging than standard instruction. I have seen this through my students, who now want to learn more about the topics we have discussed in class because they have seen real world application.

I have also seen this personally. After participating in new course development I am very interested in learning educational theory to understand why this experimental course has been so successful and to make all of my classes better. I am excited to complete the courses required for New Faculty Development.

If you have activities or equipment that you use in your higher level classes try incorporating them into your entry level courses. You may find your beginner students thoroughly enjoying the experience and getting more out of it than you thought.

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