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NSF grant will virtualize evidence-based teaching for science and engineering

Harvard and UT-Austin aim to give any instructor, anywhere in the world, open-access research-based tools

A $500,000 NSF grant will build upon Mazur's learning methodology—Peer Instruction (PI)—to enhance teaching and learning in science and engineering.

Harvard University and The University of Texas at Austin have received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop open-access research-based tools for advancing learning in science and engineering.

Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), will serve as lead investigator in collaboration with co-principal investigator Sacha Kopp at the UT-Austin College of Natural Sciences (CNS), and project director Julie Schell, senior educational researcher in the Mazur Group at SEAS.

As part of the NSF's Office of Cyber Infrastructure, the grant will be used to "virtualize" evidence-based teaching methods, making good practices accessible to educators everywhere.

“This project will help teachers improve students' learning by disseminating innovative instructional approaches via the Internet and,in turn, will allow us to streamline our efforts to enhance learning in science and engineering for broad audiences,” said Mazur.

The project will feature Mazur's learning methodology—Peer Instruction(PI). The basic goals of PI are to encourage and make use of student interaction during lectures, while focusing students' attention on underlying concepts and techniques.

Already used by thousands of instructors who have collectively taught more than 75,000 students, PI is supported by 20 years of research. Many studies using standardized,diagnostic tests have evaluated PI and shown it to be considerably more effective than the conventional lecture approach to teaching.

Recent research also points to PI as the best known and mostly widely used evidence-based teaching method among physics faculty.

To build on such progress, Mazur, Kopp, and Schell aim to create a centralized way of training and assessing instructors using PI and other evidence-based practices in the classroom.

“Our goal is to create a system whereby any instructor with an internet connection, anywhere in the world, can learn to improve their teaching using approaches backed by empirical research,” said Schell.

By building PORTAL (Pedagogical Open-Access Research-Based Tools for Advancing Learning), a cyber learning platform, the investigators will offer a centralized and free online hub for Computer-Based Trainings on a series of innovative teaching methods known specifically to  advance learning in science and engineering classrooms.

Because of PORTAL’s scope, ultimately, the Harvard and UT-Austin team anticipate that their effort to enhance teaching and learning in science and engineering could broaden participation, especially for underrepresented minorities, and create pathways for the next generation of researchers and high-technology workers.

Topics: Awards, Applied Physics, Academics

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Eric Mazur

Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics