Making Connections Across the Disciplines

Anyone teaching introductory science or mathematics courses has probably encountered this scenario: Students in one course (first year physics, for instance) don't recognize concepts and equations that they were supposed to have learned in another course (in this case, calculus). Despite the fact that many disciplines share fundamental concepts and apply basic mathematics, too often students don't seem to make the connection. This was a chronic problem at University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Several years ago a group of faculty from the Mathematics, Chemistry, and Physics departments set out to address it.

The departments were facing three major problems: declining student retention rates, an inability of students to correlate knowledge from one discipline to another, and a lack of motivation on the part of students for studying science and mathematics. According to Dr. Gabriel Lugo, associate professor of mathematics, even the science and mathematics majors were having trouble connecting the dots between courses. He, along with faculty members from the other departments, launched the MCP project in 1992, with support from the National Science Foundation. The project—named after the three disciplines—was designed to change teaching methods and incorporate technology in order to conceptually and pedagogically link the first year sequences in mathematics, physics, and chemistry.

Working together in a series of organized workshops and meetings, faculty redesigned the curriculum to ensure that each of the introductory courses shared the same conceptual themes, pedagogical techniques, and technology. "The emphasis was on teaching practice," says Charles Ward, professor of chemistry. "Technology was part of that." At first each department agreed upon some specific projects to tackle, such as thermodynamics and kinetics. Over time, they've continued to fill in the curriculum with homemade projects as well as tools they've found elsewhere.

Each MCP course shares four conceptual themes—constancy, scale, statistical variation, and modeling—and instructors use these fundamental themes to frame course topics. For instance, one might use the concept of scale to examine something from both microscopic and macroscopic perspectives. In chemistry, students can look at solids in terms of their overall shape—the macro view—as well as the way the molecules pack together to form the solid—the micro view. Likewise, in mathematics they might take a microscopic view of the slope of a line, discovering that in a very tight close-up, aspects of a curve might actually form a straight line while a macro perspective reveals the curve.

To teach this way, UNCW has incorporated a number of technology innovations into the MCP courses. While they use a variety of tools, from electronic "blackboards" to hypermedia, the more important aspect is that each of the courses draws from the same set of tools. That way, students study within "a continuous environment," as Ward puts it, an environment that is consistent and familiar. The overall MCP project is invisible to students, but they recognize the sharing of technology tools and see that as a benefit to understanding key concepts. "There's a level of comfort," says Lugo, "that allows students to expect certain technology tools." Says Ward, "Oftentimes students draw illustrations from the media we've used when they're discussing questions with us."

Using technology has greatly enhanced their teaching, says Ward. "Being able to show an animation of a concept several times is much more efficient than drawing and redrawing, in a crude way, on the blackboard." Using the example of scale again, Ward points out how easily he can zoom in and out using an animation and how difficult it is to do that with a piece of chalk.

Although the MCP group has not conducted a formal assessment of the project, members have noticed an increase in student attendance and an improvement in the quality of questions asked by their students. As a result, they feel students are benefiting from the revamped curriculum.

MCP's tools are now part of the NSF-funded Digital Library Project (http://aa.uncwil.edu/dl). UNC Wilmington is one of four institutions contributing to that multi-disciplinary project.

For more information, contact Charles Ward or Gabriel Lugo at UNC Wilmington; ward@uncwil.edu or lugo@uncwil.edu.

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