Emory Report
August 1, 2005
Volume 57, Number 36


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August 1, 2005
PRISM shines light on learning methods

BY Katherine Baust

Showcasing nontraditional learning methods was the highlight of the third annual PRISM (Problems and Research to Integrate Science and Mathematics program) demo day, held July 26 in the Math & Science Center Planetarium.

PRISM is a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded program that pairs graduate students in the sciences with middle and high school teachers to develop innovative pre-college science curricula using problem-based and investigative case-based learning pedagogy.

Collaborative teams of graduate students and teachers presented the original problems and cases they wrote this summer and plan to implement over the upcoming year. Presentations covered a range of topics, from lessons about infection control and outbreak, to swabing surfaces at the schools to find and identify different types of bacteria, to the importance of hand-washing and proper infection-control techniques at hospitals, to learning about engineering by building model planes.

PRISM’s goal is to turn potentially dull or confusing topics into practical and accessible problems students can relate to and understand, and to encourage their active participation in the learning process.

“While student data are still under analysis, teachers report their students are more motivated to learn and they attend class more often and retain concepts longer than with traditional teaching methods,” said Jordan Rose, program associate for the Center for Science Education (CSE), which helps administer the program.

PRISM was started by a three-year $1.5 million Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) award from the NSF. The idea grew out of collaborations between Pat Marsteller, CSE director and senior lecturer for biology, and Preetha Ram, assistant dean of Emory College and senior lecturer in chemistry. The two had brought case-based learning to undergraduate education through partnerships with four metro Atlanta school districts. The collaboration now has grown to include Jay Justice, professor of chemistry, and to focus on case-based learning as a way “to transform the next generation of scientists.”

Last week, one PRISM group demonstrated the importance of hygiene and hand-washing techniques for infection control by incorporating music, graphics and participation in their presentation. The lights were dimmed and the audience’s hands were scanned with UV lights in search of who had bacteria (called “the bug”) on them. The team integrated math and technology with a case study listing statistics of infection rates due to improper disinfection at a hospital, and the presentation ended with the handing out of antibacterial hand wipes.

“Our graduate fellows overwhelmingly report that they are more confident teachers, improved communicators, better team-players, and more committed partners with K-12 educators,” Rose said. “Some even have told us that they are asking better questions about their own research and feel better prepared to enter the professorate or wherever their career paths might lead them. As one fellow told me, ‘If you can handle 30 screaming seventh-graders for a year, a class of undergraduates doesn’t seem so daunting.’”

Another group initiated an activity requiring the audience partner up and take turns teaching each other how to do something. Designed to address issues of diversity and to help students recognize their individual knowledge and talents, the exercise filled the room with chatter, and “lessons” learned ranged from making origami flowers to learning piano chords.

“In addition to graduate student outcomes, we are having a notable impact on K-12 students and teachers,” Rose said. “Teachers are pleased to be connected with the academic world, to practice new pedagogies, and to share ideas with colleagues across disciplines and grade levels.”