Matthew Cassoli, Mechanical Engineering major, class of 2017
While giving a lecture is an efficient way to dispense information, it is not always the best way to teach. Unfortunately, according to several recent studies, lecture classes are still the primary type of class that STEM students encounter for their first several years of classes. In the end, this contributes to so many STEM majors changing their minds about their degrees.
The problem with lectures in sciences is that it makes it hard for students to relate to the material. Most students enter STEM because they love doing, acting, and problem solving. Lectures do not allow this. A solution suggested, and already partially implemented at Notre Dame, is to break the “deadly lectures” of freshman, sophomore, and junior years by having more hands-on classes. At Notre Dame, freshmen participate in a four-part hands-on course where they build using Legos, learn basic code, and even design bridges.
I would caution Notre Dame, and observers at Northwestern, from relying too much on labs to break out of the lecture hall. While a once-weekly lab is an admirable effort for hands-on experience, if the experiments have been done before, and if it is obvious what the results should be, students find themselves asking, “what’s the point?” Especially frustrating is when students are graded on how “good” their results are based on how much they conform to expectations, and not how they analyze them. Finally, labs don’t give enough of an opportunity to design one’s own experiment, and make the experience a truly exciting hands-on opportunity for students.
To combat these problems – which happen across even the best universities in the country – I would suggest that students remember to engage outside the classroom. Actively going to office hours, joining a study group, or finding an engineering-related club that creates a product all allow students person-to-person interaction and possibly direct real-world experience. In the end, these opportunities allow us to remember why we love science, and why we chose a STEM major in the first place.
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