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IfA Students, Postdoc Attend Maui Teaching Workshop

by Mark Pitts

Seven IfA people attended the annual Center for Adaptive Optics (CfAO) Professional Development Workshop March 1-7 on Maui. This program trains graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to implement the "inquiry" method of teaching science and engineering at the university level. This was the first year that IfA personnel took part.

The attendees included IfA graduate students David Harrington, Joseph Masiero, Mark Pitts, Steve Rodney, Sarah Sonnett, and Bin Yang, and postdoctoral fellow J. D. Armstrong. They participated in an inquiry-based activity that promoted spontaneous questioning and self-investigation over the more commonly used lecture and directed-lab approach. The activity consisted of observing nonintuitive behaviors of light and shadow, producing a set of questions that could be investigated, and conducting experiments with minimal but strategic advisement from the activity facilitators. A joint session at the conclusion of the activity allowed the investigators to present and explain their findings.

The theory behind the method is to provide students with a sense of ownership of the questions they ask, thus adding motivation to the investigation and a sense of empowerment upon reaching and sharing their conclusions. Proponents of this method find it preferable to traditional teaching methods, which require the students to merely do as they are instructed without a need to understand or explain how the investigation will address a particular question.

The disadvantage of the inquiry method is that it requires more personnel and resources to create an environment that will motivate the students to behave like scientists. This methodology lends itself much better to smaller classes, making it impractical for the large classes often found at public universities. Still, the basic concepts of presenting attention-grabbing demonstrations, soliciting student questions, and designing methods for the students to tackle such queries can be blended even into a lecture-based course given sufficient planning and creativity from the instructor.

One of the reasons the CfAO promotes inquiry-based teaching is the severe lack of minority scientists and engineers. Research has shown that while a similar fraction of students across all ethnicities enter college with a desire to major in a science, the numbers for minorities drop dramatically from the BS to the PhD level. Promoters of the inquiry method believe this is partly because science is not taught as it is actually performed, so students do not leave college with the skills they need to conduct research at the graduate school level. Thus, the CfAO seeks to use inquiry-based teaching to create a more diverse group of scientists who can more effectively bridge the scientific community with the surrounding community at-large, a goal of particular relevance in Hawaii.