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Innovation in science teaching at SoTL 2017
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson
Published: 14/11/2017

The Faculty of Science had a total of 12 presentations at the annual Stellenbosch Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) conference this year, with earth sciences lecturer Dr Bjorn von der Heyden receiving the runner-up prize for the best presentation overall at the conference.

Prof Louise Warnich, Dean of the Faculty of Science, says the participating lecturers have to be commended for going the extra mile to enhance excellence in teaching and student success.

Most of the presenters were recipients of awards from SU's Fund for Innovation and Research into Learning and Teaching (FIRLT). The fund was established in 2005 to encourage a culture of innovation and reflection in teaching and learning at the University.

Dr Von der Heyden, a lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences, submitted two abstracts and both were listed among the top six. The one looked at industry-based geologists as a valuable resource from whom students could acquire additional knowledge of the applied aspects of their degree. Students had to conduct telephonic interviews with South African geologists to gain insight into the roles and responsibilities of a professional geologist. All in all, the shared experience meant the class was exposed to the equivalent of 150 years of professional experience.

In the second project he investigated different peer- and near-peer learning interventions with his third year economic geology students. The project was designed to put more ownership of learning into the student domain, and to test whether this learning was effective as well as de-colonised. The peer-learning interventions involved presentation by fellow undergraduates, while the near-peer learning included lectures and videos by postgraduate students. Both interventions were compared to traditional lectures. Student feedback indicated that although students enjoyed learning from their peers, the best learning was attained when a lecturer was involved.

A separate award for the best presentation by a lecturer in the Faculty of Science was awarded for the first time and went to Dr Christine Steenkamp from the Department of Physics. Dr Steenkamp and colleagues used one of the five dimensions in Legitimation Code Theory to analyse five years of test and exam papers of Physics 114 and 144.

“The aim was to understand why students struggle to adapt to principle-based learning. In other words, the best strategy for a first year physics student is to know the few basic principles and then apply them from the most basic to the more abstract applications. But instead students continue to try and memorise the applications. And of course there are hundreds of examples of these applications in the text book," she explains.

Dr Steenkamp used the concept of semantic gravity, an analytical tool to determine levels of conceptual and contextual meaning, to analyse the type of questions asked in the first semester's tests and exam for Physics 114 and 144. The semantic gravity scale ranges from abstract theory to applications to the real world.

She describes the process as empowering: “For the first time we as lecturers had a language to talk about the level of questions in a paper. We were able to ensure that each paper had the desired fractions of the different semantic gravity levels. We focused on the essentials by explicitly assessing basic principles and communicating this clearly to the students."

Thus far, she says, the results are encouraging.

Prof Ingrid Rewitzky, vice-dean: teaching and learning in the Faculty of Science, says Dr Steenkamp has to be commended for the amount of work and effort that has gone into the project: “The judges were impressed by the theorizing of the work, the extent to which she had made Legitimation Code Theory her own, as well as the clarity with which she explained it. It was also evident that a lot of thought went into the data analysis.

From the Department of Physics, Prof Kristiaan Müller-Nedebock assessed how undergraduate students in physics progressed with their usage of a high-level software programme, called Mathematica, that has come to replace the simple calculator and mathematical tables.

Profs Richard Newman and Brandon van der Ventel are investigating the establishment of a mini film studio in the Department of Physics. The idea is to create short movies that will illustrate physics concepts relevant to their teaching.

From the Department of Mathematical Sciences, Dr Jacques Masuret applied gaming elements to first year Mathematics lectures in an attempt to increase students' engagement with the content, as well as their motivational levels. The Teaching and Learning Forum in the Faculty of Science also recently presented a workshop on the online education gaming platform, ClassCraft. The game is fully customizable and can be adapted by the lecturer or 'Game Master' to address particular issues or behaviors in class. 

Other presentations were:

Ms Bessie Burger (Mathematics) – “Development of interactive content for Mathematics"

Dr Marnel Mouton (Botany and Zoology) – “Making 'toxic' waves: Expanding students' biology concept knowledge through semantic movement";

Dr Susanne Fietz (Earth Sciences) – “Teaching concepts through local field data collection".

Dr Hanlie Adendorff (Teaching and Learning Hub) – “Science students' conceptions of academic support" and “Online tutor training short course in Science"

Dr Ilse Rootman-le Grange (Teaching and Learning Hub) – “Designing an academic skills module through the lens of Legitimation Code Theory's Autonomy dimension".

On the photos, from left to right: Dr Jacques Masuret, Dr Ilse Rootman-le Grange and dr Bjorn von der Heyden.