IS-IT Learning? Challenging Students to Think 'Outside the Box' through Interdisciplinary Contexts for Inquiry in STEM

By Gwen Lawrie1, Kelly E Matthews2, Gabriela Weaver3

1. The University of Queensland 2. University of Queensland 3. Purdue University

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Transforming Education from Innovation to Implementation Conference: Session E2

Large-enrollment first-year STEM courses present a significant challenge to academics in terms of engagement and in catering for student diversity in academic ability, career aspiration, and prior experiences. In this project we have attempted to address these issues through the development of a new approach to collaborative inquiry learning in small groups. Interdisciplinary scenario inquiry tasks (IS-ITs) have been developed through an instructional design strategy that has drawn on literature and current pedagogical practices relating to the integration of collaborative and active learning strategies to foster communities of learners. Facilitation and assessment of these tasks in large-enrolment courses (>1300 students) is too complex and time-consuming for a single academic course coordinator to manage manually; hence a new web-based task-management system, iCAS (interactive Collaborative Assessment System) has been developed to achieve these processes. iCAS facilitates flexible group formation enabling promotion of student investment in both the process and outcomes of the task. The technology-enhanced learning environment has been optimised over a 3 year period during which time 5 separate cohorts of students) completed collaborative research tasks.

The IS-IT challenges were framed in contexts that integrated multiple STEM disciplines with the relevant enabling science (in this case chemistry) as the common denominator. The aim was to increase the relevance and motivation for students thereby enhancing engagement. With this in mind scenarios were identified that encompassed a wide range of contexts which mapped against all of the programs represented by students enrolled in the large first-year courses. Twenty-seven IS-IT scenarios were formulated in two stages by a team of writers drawn from diverse backgrounds and various science disciplines. Using these scenarios students undertaking the assignment were required, over a period of 6 weeks, to generate collaboratively a group report . A critical factor in enhancing learning from these tasks was ensuring interdependency within groups of students. This was promoted by integrating an initial cooperative phase, in which students negotiated and individually retrieved information, with a collaborative phase which relied on integration of all the individual sets of information to generate a collective response to a metaquestion. The transition between cooperative and collaborative phases was managed using iCAS to electronically scaffold individual file submission in a group domain. The task criteria were designed to encourage students to develop skills beyond disciplinary content knowledge including interdisciplinary thinking and applying quantitative information to support arguments.

Evaluation examined three aspects of the implementation of the tasks: the effectiveness of the learning environment, the learning process, and the learning outcomes. Data sources included quantitative (pre/post surveys) and qualitative data (open questions, focus groups and student reports) to measure student perceptions and identify to what extent the task had impacted on learning outcomes. In this presentation, the characteristics of a group that is collaborating in a way that fosters creativity and higher-order thinking will be presented based on evidence. These traits included: collective agreement in the structure of TUESDAY 48 collaborative processes; effective routes for communication; supportive exchanges in communication and useful information contributed by all team members during the cooperative phase. Overall strong evidence emerged of enhancement of both interdisciplinary thinking and engagement as a result of the IS-IT experience.

The introduction of collaborative inquiry-based learning tasks has been demonstrated as a viable strategy for addressing issues in student diversity and engagement. One of the deliverables is a set of guidelines for a capacity to change the way that large courses are presented in universities. Innovative approaches to student learning and assessment in STEM courses can be implemented with initial resourcing and support. While this project has been implemented in a single institution, the next stage which has been initiated is to translate this initiative into other tertiary institutions and disciplinary contexts through existing networks. The secondary sector is also regarded as a potential stakeholder and so options will be explored to integrate the project resources/activities into this context.