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Seven-semester hour science course on its way to UI

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | APRIL 18, 2013 5:00 AM

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Imagine knocking out all seven required natural sciences general education credit hours in one class. Come next year, with the introduction of the Origins of Life in the Universe class at the University of Iowa, this will become a reality.

The UI’s Student Success Initiative-funded class combines faculty, teaching styles, and knowledge from the Departments of Geoscience, Chemistry, Anthropology, Biology and, of course, Astronomy, will become available for the first time in UI history.

Basing it on the one semester hour Life in the Universe course, UI Associate Professor of physics Cornelia Lang spearheaded the implementation of the new course.

She said it’s designed primarily for freshmen and sophomores looking for hands-on learning rather than a crowded lecture-hall environment. The goal, she said, is to expose students to the broad, changing real world experiences that come after graduation.

“I think that a lot of students on campus don’t necessarily experience that, because they’re taking a business course, and it’s unrelated to a political-science course they take, and that’s unrelated to a foreign-language course they might take or their reading requirements or their rhetoric course, and the world doesn’t work like that, especially in this day and age,” Lang said.

The concept, she said, is to have 81 students centered in pod-like tables at Transform, Interact, Learn, Engage (TILE) classrooms, where instead of being preached to in a 300- to 500-seat lecture hall, they are actively engaging in the material at hand.

Presentations and critical thinking will be the centerpiece of the course, taught with the help of five teaching assistants and visiting lecturers. The first few weeks of the course will involve content covered in the Stars, Galaxies and the Universe course, but a prerequisite in that will not be a requirement.

Lang was awarded a UI provost grant to cover teaching expenses, visiting lecturers, and field trips to the Devonian Fossil Gorge and local night sky observatories. A one-day trip to Chicago to visit the Field Museum of Natural History and Adler Planetarium is also in the works.

She said her long-term vision is to see the addition of nearly 15 additional courses added to include sex in pop culture, gender studies, and biology.

“We aren’t necessarily hoping to get majors out of this; that’s not the motivation,” she said “…This is a very rich experience for students. This is the kind of thing students go to smaller selective colleges to experience.”

William Peterson, a UI associate professor of physics/astronomy, said he doesn’t foresee the new course directly competing with the three and four semester hour programs, including his class, Stars, Galaxies and the Universe.

For him, a different type of student will choose to take a seven-hour course over standard offerings. Rather, he said, the UI should implement further TILE-based courses to enhance the notion of “active learning.”

“I know the professors teaching in the TILE classroom are developing stuff every semester,” he said. “I don’t know if things are going to go more that way, but I think we’ve got to try it.”

With a capacity for more than 80 students, the third floor TILE classroom in Van Allen Hall is the largest of all on campus.

An additional 45-seat TILE classroom is currently under construction as a part of the UI’s $14.6 million Learning Commons project at the Main Library.

UI freshman Maria Balasi said her original intent was to take two separate, less math intensive classes — one three semester hours and one four semester hours. 

But after learning that a yearlong option will become available, she now finds herself at a crossroads, wishing she could leave her current class to instead pursue a TILE-based alternative.

“I feel like I don’t get a lot out of it,” she said about taking Stars, Galaxies and the Universe. “I feel like the smaller [TILE] environment would actually be more helpful with allowing students to retain information. It’s just random facts that we’re forced to memorize and are tested on later.”


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