Active science learning at SIPI (part II)

Feb 6th, 2014 | By | Category: 25-3: Preserving and Protecting Knowledge, Tribal College News
By Summer Raines, Olivia George, Salina Torres, and Gloriana Trujillo

(Editor’s note: This article is the second installment in an ongoing study of science curriculum at SIPI. See TCJ vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 39–40 for the first segment in this series.)

Engaging students, especially in introductory courses, can be challenging. During the spring 2012 trimester at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI, Albuquerque, NM), we introduced a general biology curriculum that incorporated active, student-centered learning. The curriculum included a final project where students designed an informational pamphlet for the community and gave an oral presentation to the class. Our students displayed a level of interest and engagement in the project that was unmatched at any other point during the trimester.

We had modified the final project during the subsequent fall 2012 trimester to reinforce areas that facilitated student success. Specifically, we noticed that during the spring 2012 trimester, a student who produced a thoughtful, in-depth presentation and a professionally printed pamphlet using color and glossy paper was graded 12 points higher than the class average. We hypothesized that this student’s success may have stemmed in part from the emphasis on professionalism and not simply completing the project to earn a grade.

Therefore, we offered to have all pamphlets printed professionally during the fall 2012 trimester. We also invited SIPI faculty to attend and grade the oral presentations as “guest experts,” further increasing the sense of professionalism associated with the final project.

As a result of our increased emphasis on professionalism, student interest and immersion in the fall 2012 final project intensified and average scores increased by 15 points. Notably, when we looked across both trimesters, we observed a striking trend between the final project topic choice and the grade received.

Students who chose a topic with direct relevance to their culture and heritage were twice as likely to receive an excellent grade (>85%) than students who chose less culturally pertinent topics. Such topics included reservation plants with medicinal uses, sustainable living in New Mexico, and Hantavirus.

Our study suggests that incorporating professionalism and culturally relevant science topics is a powerful engagement tool for Native students in collegelevel biology courses. We believe that this final project is an example of a summative assessment that can be used in place of a final exam. Doing so reduces the anxiety associated with traditional cumulative exams and increases general excitement about biology, leading to a more rewarding experience for both the student and instructor.

This project was developed by a group of postdoctoral fellows at the University of New Mexico: Drs. Leyma De Haro, Olivia George, Summer Raines, Salina Torres, and Gloriana Trujillo. The National Institutes of Health Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards training program and the National Science Foundation FIRST IV training program supported the fellows. For more information on these programs or the general biology curriculum at SIPI, please contact Dr. Nader Vadiee and William Adams mentored the fellows at SIPI.

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