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Colleges Innovate to Fill Science Job Surplus

  • Rosanne Skirble

Large lecture classes are the norm for students in their first two years in college in the United States. (R. Skirble/VOA)

Large lecture classes are the norm for students in their first two years in college in the United States. (R. Skirble/VOA)

Active learning replaces traditional lectures

The U.S. has a surplus of science jobs but not enough college graduates to fill them. Studies find that 40 percent of students planning to major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics end up switching majors or don’t finish.

Some say large lecture classes are chasing students out of science. First-year student Nora Oles at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, doesn’t like them.

“I don’t learn very well in lectures," she says. "I get bored and sometimes I say, 'Maybe I’ll sleep in today.'”

There's an initiative at Johns Hopkins to engage students in so-called “active learning" entry-level science courses.

“Students typically master 20 percent of the material, long-term mastery of the material in a lecture format," says Scott Zeger,vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins, who is spearheading the initiative. "And you can double or triple that in an active learning format.”

Lectures online before class

One key to active learning is to put lectures online for students to view before class.

The class time can then be directed to selected problems or questions by using small handheld remote devices, like television clickers. All the students are tied into an electronic network that posts responses in real time on a screen in the front of the hall.

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“Even though there are 200 students in the classroom, they are having an individual experience,” Zeger says, adding that students are also encouraged to talk in small groups with the people around them. “They are communicating with their neighbor and teaching their neighbor, hearing from their neighbor what their neighbor learned and then deciding together what is the message, the key idea that the course is attempting to deliver.”

Phage hunting

Zeger is also taking cues from an experimental advanced biology class for qualified freshmen.

The course is called "Phage Hunting," which is the study of bacteriophage, a type of virus that infects and destroys bacteria.
This Johns Hopkins University first-year biology class is run much like a graduate seminar at the school. Some techniques which make the class successful are being copied in large lecture classes. (R. Skirble/VOA)

This Johns Hopkins University first-year biology class is run much like a graduate seminar at the school. Some techniques which make the class successful are being copied in large lecture classes. (R. Skirble/VOA)


Over two semesters, the students search for and collect phages from dirt samples, photograph them under an electron microscope, learn lab techniques for analyzing them, then return to the classroom to map their DNA structure, or genome.

For first-year student John Cotoia, this hands-on approach heightens his interest and understanding. “It was such a foreign thing to me. Now I can grasp it. I’m getting technical scientific skills.”

Cotoia’s classmate, Nora Oles, is glad she took the class. “I’ve learned so many skills both in the lab and currently on the computer.”

Teaching style changes

Biology instructor Emily Fisher says the class has helped her to develop a more engaged teaching style she hopes to integrate into her large lecture classes.

She expects to see some of her Phage Hunting students there next semester. “So I am hoping that some of the connections, the personal connections I’ve made with them will help them tolerate a large lecture environment.”

That environment is changing at Johns Hopkins University and at other colleges around the country. It’s the kind of change schools hope will encourage more science students to stay in those fields, and to fill the many jobs that experts say are waiting for them.
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