This is another in a series of interviews with staff, faculty, administrators, and students across campus promoting the goals of EKU’s Quality Enhancement Plan. The current QEP, Read with Purpose, calls for Eastern to develop critical readers through the use of metacognitive strategies. Building on the past QEP, which focused on developing critical and creative thinkers, this effort represents the University’s commitment to institutional improvement and provides a long-term focus for faculty and staff professional development and student learning.
This installment in the QEP Spotlight series features EKU professor and chair of the Department of Geosciences, Dr. Melissa S. Dieckmann.
1. In what ways have you been involved with the current EKU QEP?
In Fall 2018, I was asked to serve as our department representative on a QEP project to integrate the current EKU QEP, Read with Purpose, into General Education Element 4 classes. General Education 4 courses encompass all of the Natural Sciences, and there are two unique challenges to comprehending natural science texts.
The first challenge is the volume of new terms in a college-level science textbook. A 2016 study analyzing the vocabulary demands of introductory college textbooks (citation at the bottom of this email) showed that college-level science textbooks have an average of 2,100 new vocabulary words, while non-science texts have an average of 500 new vocabulary words. For comparison, college-level language textbooks have an average of 2,600 new vocabulary words. Thus, learning science essentially requires students to learn a “new” scientific language that is not already part of their daily vocabulary in order to read a scientific textbook to learn content.
The other challenge is that scientific learning requires students to be able to read, analyze, and interpret visual and symbolic information. Scientists use graphs to identify relationships between two or more variables, and diagrams to explain the functioning of complex systems. We use schematics to show students how to construct scientific apparatus, and maps to show spatial relationships between various factors. Finally, we use equations to mathematically represent natural laws and to predict outcomes based on those laws. According to the study, a science textbook contains about the same amount of visual information as a college-level art history textbook. Most students think of this as non-essential information and tend to gloss over it, when in reality, it is a substantial part of the reading comprehension process in natural science.
Dr. Judy Jenkins in the Department of Chemistry completed some seminal work to lay the foundation for helping students understand visual and symbolic information in science courses. The workgroup decided to build on her work by developing an integrated assessment focused on the visual and symbolic information that infuses every aspect of natural science. We developed an integrated rubric for GE Element 4 that reflects our focus, and our departments have been working on the development of integrated GE/QEP assessments that we will begin using in Spring 2021, as well as adding critical reading assignments into GE Element 4 courses.
2. What ways have you implemented QEP in your courses?
I teach two distinct types of courses – introductory general education courses with a largely non-science-major student population, and courses for elementary and middle grades teachers. In both types of courses, I focus on understanding visual scientific information. In all of my courses, students collect data, graph it, and interpret it. We use maps and satellite imagery to identify spatial patterns (e.g., distribution of earthquakes globally) and to evaluate how the Earth changes over time (e.g., movement of continents, long-term impacts of geologic processes). Students develop diagrams to explain phenomena and patterns they see. I focus on showing students how visual representations of information make it easier to see patterns and learn information than just relying on the written word.
In my courses for future teachers, I take Reading with Purpose to a completely different level. In the early elementary grades, teachers focus on learning to read. They focus on gaining literacy and fluency with the written word. In later elementary grades and middle grades, the focus shifts from learning to read to READING TO LEARN. At this developmental stage, students focus on decoding the written word for meaning. They begin to read more informational texts, and to interpret fictional and narrative texts. In my classes, students learn to use picture books, informational books in a narrative style, encyclopedia-style informational books, and fiction in the classroom to help students learn science. We read at least one book a day that I link to learning the Next Generation Science Standards. I model how to read critically, and how to help students use both fiction and non-fiction books to learn science.
Using visual information to learn is especially important for elementary teachers. In early elementary grades, not all students are ready to read independently, so visual representations of information become a necessary teaching and learning tool. For example, a diagram of the water cycle can convey a large amount of information in a format that is accessible to readers at multiple levels of fluency. Additionally, when students do not read and write at a fully fluent level, visual information is an important way for students to demonstrate their learning. For example, drawing a picture of how an apple seed becomes a tree, and then flowers blossom, then the fruit appears, then we pick the fruit with the seed inside is a way for students to demonstrate their understanding of an apple’s life cycle. As students grow older and become more fluent, educators reduce the opportunities that students have to show learning in visual ways. In science, we continue to retain those visual elements as students’ literacy skills grow and mature, but students lose practice and confidence in doing so.
3. In what ways has QEP professional development impacted your work with students?
QEP professional development has increased my awareness of how much more difficult it is for students to decode information in their science courses because of the challenges mentioned above. Scientific vocabulary is a significant roadblock to understanding for introductory students, so I have been very reflective about the amount and level of scientific vocabulary that I include in my courses. I have discarded textbook reading in my introductory courses in favor of reading more accessible written texts such as trade books, articles in accessible magazines such as Science News and Discover, and reputable online sources, including some science blogs run by notable scientists.
In this age of ease of access for digital information, I also focus on ways to assess the validity and accuracy of scientific information that they encounter in their daily lives. We live and breathe the Sagan standard, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The often unmentioned corollary is that even mundane claims require evidence. For example, they learned in some science class in their past that the Earth’s surface is 70% water. Can we validate that claim? Sure we can, and then we do an experiment to estimate the amount of water on Earth’s surface. By the end of the semester, they are likely to ask “what’s the evidence for your statement?” before I can even open my mouth.
I also spend a lot of time explicitly explaining and discussing visual and symbolic information, which usually requires me to review math concepts with my students. Students cannot effectively read and analyze graphs if they do not remember which is the x-axis and the y-axis, and what they represent. Students have likely never seen a graph with two different y-axes in their math class, but these are quite common in science texts. Students may have only used a map for navigation, and with the advent of smartphones, they may have never held a paper map in their hands. Map reading skills today are significantly less sophisticated than they were before GPS and smartphones. My goal is to meet students where they are, and take them as far as they can go.
4. In what ways do you see the QEP supporting student learning at EKU?
Reading is one of the primary ways that we learn in academic settings, professional settings, and as informed citizens. A 2013 study on science instructional time in elementary schools shows that students spend 53% of their class time on language arts, and only 11% on science. The type of reading comprehension learned in language arts and other academic subjects does not necessarily prepare people to adequately comprehend science texts for the reasons I previously mentioned. Science misinformation is rampant throughout our society, and many scientific topics elicit strong emotional reactions from the general public. (Don’t believe me, just mention childhood vaccination, global climate change, or evolution and watch the fur fly!) Therefore, it is imperative that college students learn to effectively read and comprehend scientific information as they embark on adulthood. Many scientific issues have societal impacts, and require an informed citizenry to make critical decisions. Local, national, and international policies, budget decisions, and laws and regulations related to scientific issues can impact the health, livelihood, and economy of our citizens. By integrating this QEP into our Natural Science general education courses, we can help EKU students become scientifically literate citizens who can evaluate new science information that they encounter in their personal and professional lives.