University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
UpDate - Vol. 16, No. 27, April 17

           NSF awards $200,000 for discovery-based learning
     Kurt Burch used to stand before a classroom of
students and lecture for an hour. "Some of them would yawn
occasionally, some of them would smile, all of them would
scribble furiously," the assistant professor of political
science and international relations said. "I began to
realize that, while they were becoming very good scribes,
they weren't necessarily learning much."
     Now, instead of talking, Burch listens, to the
satisfying sounds of small groups of students actively
engaged in active learning in a course re-designed using
the concepts of discovery-based learning. The discussions
are so lively, one colleague mistakenly thought Burch was
teaching advanced classes.
     Similiarly, Deborah Allen, assistant professor of
biology, said she used to stand before a class and lecture
extensively on the human nervous system. Now, thanks to
revised curriculum, students work out the system for
themselves by "becoming" emergency room workers who must
treat migrant workers who have inhaled and absorbed a
critical amount of a pesticide that affects the system.
     Student response to both revised class formats has
been extremely positive.
     This movement at UD to turn some traditional, lecture-
format classes into interactive learning situations
received a boost last week from the National Science
Foundation when the Institute for Transforming
Undergraduate Education at UD received a $200,000 NSF grant
for institution-wide reform of undergraduate education.
     The grant is one of only 20 reform proposals funded
nationwide in a competitive process that drew close to 80
applications. Principal investigator George H. Watson,
associate professor of physics and astronomy, and co-
investigator Barbara Duch, associate director in the
Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center, said one
of the reasons UD was chosen is its potential to serve as a
national model for the reform of undergraduate education-in
science, engineering, math and other disiciplines.
     In February, UD was one of only 10 institutions
nationwide to receive a three-year, $500,000 award from NSF
recognizing integration of research and education.
     Watson, Duch and other leaders of the Institute for
Transforming Undergraduate Education-Deborah Allen,
assistant professor of biology, Harry Shipman, professor of
physics and astronomy, and Harold B. White, professor of
chemistry and biochemisty-established the institute to
promote reform of undergraduate education through faculty
development and course design.
     This grant money will help accomplish that goal by
funding an exceptional training opportunity for UD faculty
interested in exploring new methods of teaching, designing
courses and incorporating technology in science,
engineering, math and other classes.
     The grant will enable selected faculty to participate
in a four-day workshop being offered by the institute this
summer. The workshop is designed to help faculty re-think
the way some classes are taught and to encourage them to
offer courses that incorporate skills students will need to
be successful in a technological society.
     The workshop will stress concepts that encourage
students to develop effective communication, master
analytical thinking, particpate in productive teamwork and
be responsible for independent learning and resource
     Proponents of this new approach to teaching and
learning challenge the assumption that the basic skills for
academic success are note-taking, memorization and
regurgitation of isolated facts.
     Duch and Watson agreed that in much of science and
engineering education, the emphasis has traditionally been
on algorithmic problem-solving and rote memorization of
abstract, often isolated concepts. For the majority of
students, this approach does not fully prepare them for the
real challenges of life in a technological society.
     Traditional 50-minute, content-driven lectures may not
be the best approach in some cases, they said. Encouraging
students to remain in a passive role in the classroom may
promote rote learning and give immature students a naive
view of knowledge and how it is acquired. Students may not
see the need for or develop higher order thinking skills.
Additionally, grade competition can keep students isolated
from each other.
     "Major national educational organizations are calling
for changes in the way undergraduates are taught," Duch
     More than 60 faculty members have already applied to
be fellows of the institute and to participate in the
workshop-more than twice the number anticipated. Additional
funding from other sources may open up more spots Watson
     For more information, interested faculty can contact
him at 831-6677 or
                                               -Beth Thomas