Jan 24 12:30 PM

Could this be the solution to America's STEM graduate deficit?

In Bob Beichner's physics class at North Carolina State University, the classroom is "flipped," which makes students learn the lessons outside of class and practice that work in groups of three during class.
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Pixelligent is a fast-growing technology company, but it has a challenge: The company needs more people in the lab.

In Baltimore, Pixelligent manipulates molecules less than a thousandth the diameter of a human hair. The nanotechnology is used inside flat-panel displays and LEDs, making them brighter. Selling their product is not the problem. The issue, however, is finding qualified workers to make the product.

“Now, we have major commitments out there to customers all over the world, and we have to have the people to deliver,” said Pixelligent CEO Craig Bandes, adding that the company has recruiters and HR people scouring the country to fill the open positions. “For us, unemployment is zero percent.”

What Bandes needs are people with STEM degrees — science, technology, engineering and math. “Some of our positions have been open for three, four, five months, and that means something is not getting done,” he said.

It's a need that’s been echoed in high echelons. In December 2012, President Barack Obama announced a goal to increase the number of STEM graduates by 1 million in the next decade. About a quarter of college students pursuing STEM majors switch to other subjects, according to the Department of Education, and another quarter drop out of college entirely.

At North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Bob Beichner has is stepping up to the task to work to retain STEM students by designing a different kind of classroom — one that's flipped around.

Leaving the lecture behind

Flipping the classroom has been successful for Bob Beichner, who has found that students' understanding and grades have improved with the adapted teaching method.
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Think of the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs, or SCALE-UP for short, as higher education turned on its head. For starters, students don’t spend their class time frantically copying down facts and formulae. There are no lectures. They get their information outside of class.

"There’s videos available on the web that they could watch. They can find things on YouTube," said Beichner, director of N.C. State’s STEM Education Initiative and a physics professor. "They can do searches on Wikipedia, I really don’t care where they get the information."

In his physics class, Beichner’s students work on difficult, hands-on problems. They sit around seven-foot diameter tables and work collaboratively in three teams of three, essentially swapping the roles of the lecture and homework.

“It requires a philosophical change,” said Beichner. “What’s the role of a teacher? To dispense, transmit information? Well, that was true 15 years ago before there was Google, but now I can pull out my cell phone and find something that more up to date than what the lecturer is talking about.”

The professor found that 6-foot tables were too small and 9-foot tables were too large, but 7-foot tables were just right.
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In the classroom, Beichner’s formula for success is as much psychology as it is physics. For instance, the round tables in his classroom are seven feet in diameter, and it isn’t by accident. Beichner said attempts with six-foot tables didn’t allow for enough room for hands-on work. The nine-foot tables were also problematic, he said, proving to be too big to communicate across the table without shouting.

Student interaction is another distinctive ingredient to the flipped classroom. Each team of three students has a strong student who can help the others. With a couple of teams at each table, there is one superior student per table to help the entire group.

When you have a bunch of people contributing, you are more likely to actually grasp it because you’re asking questions. You’re trying to figure it out, and if you don’t understand something, you can ask them instead of someone talking at you.

Katherine Mooney

N.C. State student

To motivate the best students, teams are rewarded with extra points if they average above an 80 on tests. In order to motivate the laziest students, teams draw up contracts, which allow them to fire a teammate. If a teammate is fired, he or she had to do all the work on the phone. (Beichner added that only “two or three students” have ever been fired.)

Beichner’s students have embraced the flipped classroom.

When you have a bunch of people contributing you are more likely to actually grasp it because you’re asking questions,” said Katherine Mooney, a 22-year-old student who is in one of Beichner’s classes. “You’re trying to figure it out, and if you don’t understand something, you can ask them instead of someone talking at you.”

The results

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Beichner, who has been practicing his active-learning model since designing it in 1997, has tinkered with his flipped classroom and has collected data along the way. His results are stunning. Not only do his students fail less often and stick with science more, but they also understand the concepts better, according to results from Beichner’s research.

Beichner said he has given his students the exams of professors teaching the same course in the traditional lecture format. His students score, on average, a full letter grade better, he said.

Looking at more than 16,000 students in introductory physics, Beichner found the failure rate was three times lower overall, four times lower for minorities and five times lower for women.

“I knew it was going to be better. I didn’t realize it was going to be as good for underrepresented groups you don’t see enough of in the sciences,” he said.

Beichner's model has some high-level support. Former astronaut Leland Melvin is a White House advisor on education in the sciences and a big proponent of hands-on learning.

"What is that next thing we’re going to have to invent or create to help save our civilization from something we haven’t even thought about yet?" he asked. Melvin is now NASA’s director of education, and the flipped classroom is one step closer to the next big invention.

"I think it’s a great answer because you have kids going home watching the lectures," he said, "and then going to the classroom and working together as teams solving problems."

But that model -- studying and learning at home before getting hands on -- is what has attrached some criticism of the flip program.

Last year a study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that students were better prepared to understand a theory after exploring on their own first, and suggested that the flip model needs to be flippped. And last month, preliminary research comparing a pilot flip classroom and a non-flip classroom at Harvey Mudd College indicated that there was no statistical difference in students' results.

For Beichner, pitching the idea of a flipped classroom to other professors – and getting them to believe in its effects – has been a struggle.

“It is hard to make changes. There are egos involved,” Beichner said. “I gave a talk and at the end of the talk, a faculty member raised his hand and said, ‘After you get done playing these games, when do you actually teach physics?’”

Taking off

Despite some doubt from his peers, the flipped-classroom initiative has taken off in the last five years. Funding for SCALE-UP research has come from a variety of national outlets, such as the U.S. Dept. of Education and the National Science Foundation. Now, more than 250 colleges and universities, a group that includes MIT, use Beichner’s technique. At the University of Minnesota, the school built an entire facility dedicated to these classrooms. In recent years, people have even taken to YouTube, explaining why they practice and prefer the flipped classroom model.

There has recently been a push for learning initiatives such as the flipped classroom. In 2011, Beichner was honored for the flipped classroom with the 2011 Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education. In 2012, a White House report from an advisory panel to President Obama endorsed “active learning” as a way to cut into an anticipated shortfall of 1 million graduates in STEM fields.

With support for the flipped classroom at hundreds of schools that are pushing for a higher volume of STEM graduates, Beichner is confident that students in flipped classrooms whom are able to grasp complicated concepts and work in teams will be the future of STEM workers in the U.S.

“This is a good match for the way students think these days,” he said. “You can see how excited they get when they explain something to somebody else. That part is the best.” 

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