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Active Learning Initiative funds nine projects

Innovative projects to enhance undergraduate teaching and learning in nine departments have received funding administered by Cornell’s Active Learning Initiative. Above, students work together in Introduction to Evolutionary Biology and Diversity, an Active Learning Initiative course. Photo by Cornell Brand Communications File Photo

Cornell’s Active Learning Initiative (ALI) will nearly double in scope and impact with a new round of funding for innovative projects to enhance undergraduate teaching and learning in nine departments.

In the first universitywide ALI grant competition, about $5 million has been awarded in substantial new grants ranging from $195,000 to almost $1 million, spread over two to five years. The funded projects will affect courses at all levels, including sequences aimed at majors, survey courses for non-majors, and introductory, online and lab courses.

In all, 70 faculty members will work on substantially changing the way they teach in more than 40 courses to over 4,500 students. The work will be supported by 17 new teaching innovation postdoctoral fellows across the projects.

The initiative aims to improve teaching and learning in groups of courses by introducing active learning and other research-based pedagogies drawn from a variety of disciplines. The College of Arts and Sciences launched the initiative with two previous grant cycles, in 2014 and 2017, that focused on pilot projects within the college.

Undergraduate teaching departments across the university received a call for proposals last fall. The Departments of Mathematics and of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology won their second ALI grants, and large projects in information science and engineering are among those funded this cycle.

“We received many excellent and thoughtful proposals,” said Vice Provost for Academic Innovation Julia Thom-Levy, who supervises the initiative with support from the Center for Teaching Innovation. “Over the three competitions, we have already or will work with more than 100 faculty in 16 departments and four colleges, putting Cornell at the cutting edge of innovation in undergraduate education. This is an extremely exciting development, and many people have worked hard to get us to this point.”

The grants have so far supported projects in the natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, mathematics and the humanities. Projects are jointly funded by ALI and the respective colleges, with support for the initiative coming from the Office of the Provost and a donor.

The departments and projects funded:

Information Science will transform six core courses over the next three years. Faculty and postdocs will incorporate innovative techniques for activities in and out of the classroom, including live-coding collaborations and group data visualization projects. The project explores how to facilitate student learning and implement collaborative classwork and peer feedback with increasingly large class sizes. Impact: more than 1,500 students over three years.

Mathematics will redesign two linear algebra courses providing foundational math knowledge for many fields, with a target of improving students’ conceptual understanding and ability to model real-life situations; and the department will continue to develop instructor training. Impact: more than 400 students a year. The department received a three-year ALI grant in 2017 to transform two introductory calculus courses and a proofs course, together serving more than 900 students a year.

Biological and Environmental Engineering: Three existing courses and one new course will focus on developing problem-solving skills that span disciplines, allowing students to transfer skills and knowledge across courses and contexts, and identify and develop solutions to complex problems. Overall impact of the three-year grant: About 200 students will take these courses every year.

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology faculty will take active learning a step further following a five-year ALI grant in 2014 that transformed two core introductory courses. A new, online active learning version of one, Evolutionary Biology and Diversity, will launch to run parallel to the classroom course during the academic year and on its own in the summer. Goals of the three-year project include reaching a broader, more diverse group of students without increasing an already large class size; and establishing a model for designing online courses and assessing their effectiveness in comparison to the in-person course that is already offered on campus.

Entomology faculty will redesign three popular classes for non-majors with a three-year grant. Active learning modules will be incorporated to prompt students to practice thinking and communicating like scientists, and learn to critically evaluate and interpret scientific information. Impact: more than 300 students a year.

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering faculty have developed a plan to transform six courses and combine the best elements of project teams and coursework through case-based learning. The courses are taken simultaneously by nearly all MAE students as juniors, allowing for projects and assignments spanning multiple courses, focusing on different aspects of the same engineering challenge. Impact of the project, funded by a four-year grant: “a richer and more applied engineering experience” for more than 130 students a year.

The School of Integrative Plant Science plans to further transform its core 10-course undergraduate curriculum with a five-year grant. SIPS revised the curriculum when it was established in 2015, and enrollment in the major has since more than doubled in size. The grant will support the work of 14 faculty members and four postdocs, developing in-class activities to improve student learning and targeting the laboratory components of the program by moving away from observational labs and toward experimental labs.

Natural Resources: Faculty teaching in the multidisciplinary Environmental and Sustainability Sciences (ESS) major will redesign an online course on Climate Solutions and a Field Biology course, and develop new courses aimed at collaboratively solving complex environmental problems, such as improving water resource management and assessing environmental policy. Climate Solutions students on campus can engage in discussions with students from around the world taking a parallel MOOC version of the class. Natural resources faculty will lead these efforts over three years; the rapidly growing ESS major involves 75 faculty members from 22 departments across the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Arts and Sciences.

Psychology: Introduction to Psychology, one of the largest courses at Cornell with more than 800 students, will be transformed as part of an ALI-funded, three-year project to implement active learning strategies in several undergraduate courses. Faculty aim to introduce polling questions and student discussion in the large course and more inquiry-driven group work in smaller classes. The project will target learning outcomes established by the American Psychological Association.

“The new projects build on impressive results from the pilot projects in the College of Arts and Sciences,” said Peter Lepage, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics and director of ALI. “Research shows that student learning can be improved dramatically through active learning, and that is what we are finding at Cornell.”

ALI, together with the Center for Teaching Innovation, works with departments throughout the grant period, helps train staff in active learning and helps departments design assessments to measure impacts.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.