To graduate with a science degree, college students must complete between 40 and 60 credit hours of science courses. That means spending about 2,500 hours in the classroom over the course of their undergraduate career.
However, research has shown that despite all that effort, most college science courses give students only a fragmented understanding of basic science concepts. The teaching method reinforces the memorization of isolated facts, moving from one chapter to another without necessarily making connections between them, rather than teaching how to use the information and connect those facts in a meaningful way.
The ability to make these connections is important beyond the classroom because it is the foundation of scientific literacy: the ability to use scientific knowledge to accurately evaluate information and make evidence-based decisions.
As a chemistry education researcher, I have been working since 2019 with my colleague Sonia Underwood to learn more about how chemistry students integrate and apply their knowledge in other science disciplines.
In our most recent study, we investigated how well college students can use their knowledge of chemistry to explain real-world biological phenomena. We did this by having them do activities designed to make those interdisciplinary connections.
We found that even though most students are not given similar opportunities that would prepare them to make those connections, activities like these can help—if they become part of the curriculum.
Three dimensional learning
A large body of research shows that traditional science education, both for science majors and non-majors, does not do a good job of teaching science students how to apply their scientific knowledge and explain things which they may not have learned about directly.
With this in mind, we developed a series of interdisciplinary activities guided by a framework called “three-dimensional learning”.
In short, three-dimensional learning, known as 3DL, emphasizes that the teaching, learning, and assessment of college students must involve the use of fundamental ideas within a discipline. It should also include tools and rules that support students in making connections within and across disciplines. Finally, it should engage students in using their knowledge. The framework was developed based on how people learn as a way to help all students gain a deep understanding of science.
We did this in collaboration with Rebecca L. Matz, an expert in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Then we took these activities to the classroom.
Making scientific connections
To begin, we interviewed 28 first-year college students majoring in science or engineering. All were enrolled in introductory chemistry and biology courses. We asked them to identify connections between the content of these courses and what they believed were the take-home messages from each course.
Students responded with extensive lists of topics, concepts, and skills they had learned in class. Some, but not all, correctly identified the core ideas of each science. They realized that their knowledge of chemistry was essential to their understanding of biology, but not that the reverse could also be true.
For example, students talked about how their knowledge gained in the chemistry course about interactions—that is, attractive and repulsive forces—was important to understanding how and why the chemical species that make up DNA come together.
For their biology course, on the other hand, the core idea that students talked about the most was the structure-function relationship—how the shape of chemical and biological species determines how they work.
Next, a series of interdisciplinary activities were designed to guide students in using essential chemistry ideas and knowledge to help explain real-world biological phenomena.
Students reviewed a core chemistry idea and used that knowledge to explain a familiar chemistry scenario. Then, they applied it to explain a biological scenario.
One activity explored the impacts of ocean acidification on sea shells. Here, students were asked to use basic chemistry ideas to explain how rising carbon dioxide levels in seawater are affecting shell-building marine animals such as corals, clams and oysters.
Other activities asked students to apply knowledge of chemistry to explain osmosis – how water is transferred in and out of cells in the human body – or how temperature can change the stability of human DNA.
Overall, students felt confident in their knowledge of chemistry and could easily explain chemistry scenarios. They found it more difficult to apply the same chemistry knowledge to explain biological scenarios.
In the ocean acidification activity, most students were able to accurately predict how an increase in carbon dioxide affects ocean acidity levels. However, they were not always able to explain how these changes affect marine life by inhibiting the formation of shells.
These findings highlight that a large gap remains between what students learn in their science courses and how well they are prepared to apply that information. This problem remains despite the fact that in 2012, the National Science Foundation released a set of three-dimensional learning guidelines to help teachers make science education more effective.
However, students in our study also reported that these activities helped them see connections between the two disciplines that they would not have perceived otherwise.
Thus, we also came up with evidence that our chemistry students, at the very least, would like to have the ability to gain a deeper understanding of science and how to apply it.