Who Am I?
John is an Associate Professor in Residence in the Department of Physiology and Neurobiology. In the laboratory, his research focuses on understanding the molecular basis of heart failure. His classroom based research focuses on how to build and assess student centered classrooms. He teaches courses in Human Anatomy & Physiology, and Public Communication of Physiology. Through his teaching, he pursues his other passions – improving science literacy among the general public, and building inclusive STEM classrooms.
He currently serves as an education mentor for the National Institute on Scientific Teaching (NIST, formerly the HHMI/National Academies Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching).
John is originally from Buffalo, NY, the land of chicken wings, always-winter, and good neighbors. You can follow him on twitter @reddenjm for hot takes about about science, higher-ed, sci-fi, and diversity issues.
Creating A Scientifically Literate Society
Despite major breakthroughs in scientific and medical research over the past 100 years, only 12% of the United States population has healthcare literacy that is deemed proficient, and over 70 million people have difficulty with common health tasks such as understanding a prescription drug label or immunization schedule. Similarly, there is a growing gap between scientists and the general public on key issues such as genetic engineering, vaccine safety, evolution, and global warming. As a result, communication of scientific information to the general public has become a priority of several leading scientific organizations. However, STEM disciplines have historically focused training efforts on scientific knowledge and technical communication skills, which is of little benefit when communicating with the general public. Though extremely important and well intentioned, the call to action is essentially asking scientists to succeed in a task they have not been equipped for.
Inspiring Future Scientists & Engaging Communities
One avenue of research interest is the service learning pedagogy, which has been widely used outside of STEM disciplines, but infrequently within life and basic science disciplines like physiology. I developed a combined writing/service learning course to train students to communicate science to non-scientists. The novelty of this instructional model has been recognized by several internal grants at UConn. My students have written about rare genetic diseases for patients and families through a partnership with the National Organization for Rare Disorders in Danbury, CT. Others have provided information about malnutrition, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS prevention, and first aid to rural villagers in Masindi, Uganda through an ongoing collaboration with Guiding Light Orphans of Avon, CT. I’m proud to have created a course that provides students opportunities to apply their undergraduate knowledge, instills civic responsibility, and promotes a globally focused mindset. One ongoing research project is to evaluate how this instructional model captures student interest in STEM, and promotes success and retention.
Lecture: A 400:1 Student to Instructor Ratio
High enrollment lectures are polarizing. While some students (and instructors) undoubtedly find comfort in passive lecture classes, a growing body of evidence suggests that this is not the best method to boost learning outcomes in STEM - and it is certainly not the most inclusive. However, even faculty and students willing to experiment with more modern pedagogy are often confounded by physical classroom constraints, administrative burdens, and concerns related to content coverage. This is particularly true in large lecture courses. In order to implement active learning in a large (400+ seat) lecture course, we trained a cohort of undergraduate learning assistants to facilitate in-class active learning. By breaking apart our large class into small groups that meet simultaneously, we have been able to adopt a team based, active instructional model that significantly increases engagement and instructor to student contact. We are currently analyzing three semesters worth of data comparing this model to a "traditional" section to identify potential gains in student engagement, enthusiasm, learning gains, and inclusivity.
Active Learning: No Classroom Required
While instructors are increasingly receptive to the idea of using active learning in FTF classes, loss of instructional time is a common concern. To circumvent this loss of content, a flipped or blended instructional model is commonly used alongside the change in pedagogy. Yet despite increased learning gains evidenced by numerous studies, these models are often met with resistance from students perceiving "extra work" and instructors who prefer traditional methods. Furthermore, they are often confounded by logistical issues (administration, scheduling, depth of content, space constraints), and a lack of available models that effectively use assessment and engagement strategies.
Flipped classes commonly use online lectures to introduce material to students. In keeping with this model, our initial efforts to implement scientific teaching in modules of our course depended on EdTech tools to deliver lost lecture content (e.g. Mediasite, Lightboards, Graphics Tablets), and low-tech collaborative/PBL activities in class.
Our assessment of this model revealed that while the approach was well received and of significant benefit to the students, most respondents were reluctant to make the out of class commitment necessary to fully transition the class to the new format. Furthermore, as instructors we quickly realized that we had significantly underestimated the curricular and administrative burdens of flipping (e.g. developing online lecture content AND FTF active learning content simultaneously), which made the idea of "scaling up" to a 800 seat lecture....terrifying. As a result, we have now retuned our approach to something a bit more outside the box - we keep our lecture and flip the active learning ("backflip") content. We adapted each phase of the low-tech active learning/PBL activities (organizing, building, applying) for online delivery using freely available or low cost EdTech tools. We are currently developing these modules and piloting them in our Anatomy and Physiology course.