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CMU’s active learning classrooms improve STEM students’ learning

Environments support collaborative conversation, development of real-world skills

Contact: Curt Smith

​​New active learning classrooms at Central Michigan University are helping faculty prepare students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math to fill more than 1.2 million available STEM jobs. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that jobs in STEM areas will grow 17 percent by 2018, nearly double the growth for non-STEM fields, but most will remain vacant because there will not be enough qualified workers to fill them.

"CMU offers outstanding programs, hands-on research experience to undergraduates and is committed to providing the best education possible, as evidenced by the construction of a $95 million Biosciences Building scheduled to open for classes in January 2017," CMU Provost Michael Gealt said.

Supporting STEM education

Last year, CMU invested $1.5 million to create two state-of-the-art, technology-rich classrooms in the Dow Science Complex, where faculty and students have become familiar with their purpose and benefits.

This summer, two classrooms in Pearce Hall are being transformed into active learning classrooms.

Ian Davison, dean of the College of Science and Technology, said that a CMU chemistry course taught last semester combined traditional classroom activities with active learning strategies and showed impressive gains.

Chemistry 132, taught by faculty member Estelle Lebeau, required students to take the American Chemical Society exam at the end of the course. Past student scores have been in the 45th to 55th percentile nationally.

"After Estelle implemented the active learning concept, scores improved to the 74th percentile," Davison said.

The active learning difference

Through state-of-the-art technology, students spend their class time in active learning classrooms collaborating on assignments and solving problems rather than listening to lectures. Faculty become coaches and guides instigating thoughtful discussions and debates. Often, students watch faculty members' online lectures before each class session begins.

Studies have shown that active learning classrooms and their settings allow students to learn up to three times more and retain greater knowledge, strengthen student-faculty relationships and improve student performance. Active learning also is proven to increase the likelihood that students in STEM disciplines will continue in those programs and removes the gap between the success of male and female students.

Small groups make a big difference

Active learning classrooms are unique in their emphasis on small-group activities. Students are encouraged to review the basics, such as definitions and terms, at home so they can spend class time immersed in discussion about in-depth concepts.

Coleman junior Brandi Andrews enrolled in a genetics class this summer in one of Dow's active learning classrooms. The biology and criminal justice major said that her experience offered opportunities to better understand the material.

"The in-class activities make a big difference," Andrews said. "Having a smaller group to discuss concepts with is much more beneficial than being one of 200 students and never talking to your professor."

Gaining real-world skills

Aside from learning the benefits, students also gain real-world skills that make them more marketable – including problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork – in classrooms that support interactive learning.

"Students have the opportunity to work in groups, solve complex problems and be creative," biology faculty member Steven Gorsich said. "These are skills that employers are looking for, and we can build upon them here."

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