In the mid-1990s, Larry Pinto, Northwestern biology professor, felt compelled to help improve the way his students learned.
He saw some of his undergraduate students struggling to get through his introductory course, and he felt the traditional learning environments and teaching methods used in the large lecture courses were failing.
To remedy the situation, Pinto teamed up with Northwestern's Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching to try an innovative approach that would engage his students in a more productive learning environment. Inspired by the work of Uri Treisman and the Mathematics Workshop Program at the University of California-Berkeley, the team piloted a peer-facilitated, small-group learning program in biology.
The first set of workshops began in 1997 with 30 undergraduate students participating in five workshop groups in biology. Five undergraduates who had taken and excelled in the course the previous year led the workshops. These students were recruited and trained as the first batch of peer facilitators. After two years of pilot-testing the program, other academic departments noticed the success of peer-facilitated learning, and the program began to grow.
Funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation from 2000 to 2007, the Gateway Science Workshop (GSW) program now receives institutional support from the Office of the Provost to further its goal of promoting conceptual learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses.
Now more than a decade later, with more than 1,000 registrations each year, GSW offers groups in five disciplines and more than 20 courses, with some 100 peer mentors leading small groups each quarter.