How Many Ways Can You Learn about Biology?
Learning Differences Will be the Focus of Professor's Research
Susan Whittemore, professor of biology, has spent much of this semester working at Landmark College in Putney, Vt., helping science faculty there develop a manual for teaching biology to students with learning differences. Landmark College is the only institution in the U.S. that enrolls only students with learning differences.
In 2001, Landmark's science department received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the teaching manual. Susan was among several educators from other institutions invited to take part. Bruce Abedon, an adjunct in science at KSC, and KSC junior Peter Dumont also worked on the project.
One of Susan's tasks was to help modify lab activities so that all students could participate. This involved accounting for the different ways students learn, she explained, in terms of the content of biology courses and the skills needed to learn the content.
Some students, she says, can learn by following step-by-step written instructions. Others may need the instructions in picture form. Still others may require some type of tactile component to understand abstract concepts.
Being involved in the project, Susan says, raised her awareness of the different learning styles of students and how one teaching approach might not work for all the students in a class. She now wants to take her experiences at Landmark and apply them in her classes at Keene State. But it's not just a matter of transferring the procedures that work at Landmark to Keene State, she explains. "We have even more diversity in terms of how students learn in our classrooms and much larger class sizes," she says.
A starting point, says Susan, will be to go into classes and observe how students interpret content and apply science skills. "We want to research which teaching strategies are most effective at helping students learn better in the typical college science classroom."
Susan's interest in developing strategies for teaching science to diverse learners stems from her work teaching courses, such as forensic science, for non-science majors at Keene State and from the lack of research in this area in general. "I'm interested in exploring this topic because it ties into our mission to teach science education courses and non-majors. And, it's a different kind of research. It requires you to be constantly thinking about how you're teaching, as well as what you're teaching, in the classroom and whether you are reaching all of your students."