Wake Forest To Expand Teacher Training in Problem-Based Learning

July 20, 1999

Wake Forest University School of Medicine will

receive $300,000 from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to enrich science education in local schools and help attract students to biomedical careers.

The school is one of 35 research institutions in 25 states — but the only one in North Carolina — that will share $12.7 million in grants from the Hughes Institute.

Building on two previous grants to the medical school, the new grant will provide a comprehensive long-term professional development program to expand problem-based learning into K-12 mathematics and science education in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. Velma G. Watts, Ph.D., assistant dean for student affairs and director of minority affairs, is the principal investigator.

The core of the professional development program will be an intensive week-long problem-based learning institute for teachers, including demonstration, practice, student feedback and material and curricular unit development. The institute will be followed by four half-day sessions for all teachers spaced throughout the academic year, and bi-weekly sessions for those teacher groups focusing on curricular unit development.

Because school administrators are so critical for the shift to problem-based learning, they will be invited to attend problem-based learning information sessions, take some joint training with their teachers and make classroom observations of problem-based learning in action..

Problem-based learning begins with a problem or "case" that reflects the real world. Students first figure out what the problem is, and then seek the information they need to solve the problem. Rather than standing before a class and lecturing, teachers become coaches to help students understand the questions to ask, where they might go to find the information, and possible interpretations of what they find.

"The entire process allows students to become self-directed and independent learners, with support from their teachers," said Stan Hill, Ph.D., director of National Science Foundation initiatives for the school system. "Teachers must realize that the goal of the learning process is for students to have the ability to transfer and apply their knowledge and skills to unforeseen situations in the future."

The major product of the grant will be the development of 48 curriculum units in math and science subjects aimed at students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Each unit will include six problem-based learning cases, which will be interrelated to facilitate learning in a particular area, such as human anatomy or bacteriology. Each unit will be pilot tested with students before dissemination.

"It is imperative that entire units in mathematics and science classes be developed in order to assist students in practicing, on a regular basis, self-directed learning, problem solving, and the application of science and mathematical concepts to everyday life situations," said Ann Lambros, director of the Center of Excellence for Research, Teaching and Learning (CERTL).

The program builds on 12 years of experience with problem-based learning in a "parallel" medical school curriculum, on a previous five-year Howard Hughes grant and on the CERTL grant paid for by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The first Hughes grant fostered problem-based learning in middle and high school classrooms throughout the region. During the first two years, workshops were the primary means of reaching teachers. Teachers also were involved in writing the cases, but it turned out that there was not enough time to keep up with the increasing need for cases.

So development of cases became the primary focus of the last three years of the grant, and these cases have been in high demand. Eight teams, including students, have prepared more than 250 cases. Students also pilot test the cases, and some served as demonstrators of problem-based learning during the workshops. But these cases were not collected into units, as they now will be.

Problem-based learning also is used in the CERTL program. "Students are encouraged to explore the literature on the Internet and other resources, to engage in hands-on laboratory experiences in meaningful contexts, and to develop authentic learning experiences by students own connection and interest in the ‘realness'' of the subject matter," Lambros said.

"The medical school faculty and staff is looking forward to enhancing teacher preparation and student performance through this award," she said.


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