NSF Awards Westminster Professor $1.9M for Innovative Computer Science Programs

Nov 30, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY — When computer science professor Dr. Helen Hu was asked to co-teach a scientific computing class with her chemistry colleague incorporating a new method of teaching known as POGIL, little did she know that 11 years later she would be receiving a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create POGIL activities for computer science educators nationwide.

Originally adopted by the chemistry community 22 years ago, Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, or POGIL, is an active, student-centered method of teaching, where learning is done in collaborative groups. POGIL uses guided inquiry — a learning cycle of exploration, concept invention and application — as the basis for many of the carefully designed materials that students use to guide them to construct new knowledge. The method is now used across a wide range of disciplines.

The NSF awarded Hu and three of her colleagues nearly $2 million in recognition of their innovative efforts to incorporate POGIL activities into college-level introductory computer science classes. The grant will provide funding to support existing computer-science faculty, funding for mentor teachers to help new faculty, stipends for data acquisition and POGIL activity creation and travel expenses for mentors and faculty to attend conferences and promote the project.

“The significance of this award is to establish the value of POGIL as an approach to teaching computer science since it has been shown to increase student learning and retention in other STEM disciplines — particularly for underrepresented students,” Hu said. “The goal of the project is to study factors that most influence faculty to adopt POGIL and make it easier for them to adopt it into their computer science courses.”

Hu became an advocate of POGIL after co-teaching the scientific computing class in 2005 and attending a POGIL workshop.

“I became convinced that [POGIL] is better for the students, and I should change the way I teach my other classes,” Hu said. “In 2012, I started incorporating some of these type of activities in my intro computer science classes and eventually converted my intro CS classes to adopt more and more of these POGIL activities.”

According to Hu, research has shown that there is a significant difference in gender pass rates and information retention using the POGIL method.

“If students are being told or lectured information, they don’t remember it,” she said. “They can learn facts and pass an exam, but won’t remember it next semester. Not only do pass rates improve in classes using these POGIL activities, but when you compare students who pass the class and enroll in the next follow-up class, the students who learned from POGIL activities tend to remember the material better than students who attended lecture.”

Hu was curious to see if POGIL actually made a difference with her own students and their pass rates. After analyzing data from her previous 10 years of non-POGIL teaching at Westminster and comparing it to the several years where she taught with POGIL activities, she observed a significant change.

“Originally, I didn’t see a big change in pass-rate data — until I looked at gender,” she explained. “I saw that before I started using these activities, my female pass rate was worse than my male pass rate. After I used these activities, the female-pass rate matched my male-pass rate.”

Over the past several years, Hu has created and archived her POGIL activities on a Google drive and provided access to instructors interested in using them nationwide. The grant will provide funding for her to create more activities, as well as videos, instructor guides and the opportunity for her cohorts to figure out how to evaluate and review POGIL activities that will be shared with CS instructors nationwide. Additionally, $71,000 of the grant will provide Westminster and other university students with opportunities to help with the project.

“Students will help us improve upon our POGIL activities. We hope to hire Westminster students to actually look at activities and tell us what is and isn’t interesting to them,” she said. “We will look to hire students who succeed in our class as they become upperclassmen (CS majors or minors) and are interested in giving us thoughtful feedback.”

The NSF grant will begin Jan. 1, 2017, and will run through Dec. 31, 2021. In addition to Hu, Dr. Aman Yadav (Michigan State University), Clifton L. Kussmaul (Muhlenberg College) and Christopher S. Mayfield (James Madison University) will also help direct the project.

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Westminster is a private, independent, and comprehensive college in Salt Lake City, Utah. Students experience the liberal arts blended with professional programs in an atmosphere dedicated to civic engagement. With the goal of enabling its graduates to live vibrant, just, and successful lives, Westminster provides transformational learning experiences for both undergraduate and graduate students in a truly student-centered environment. Faculty focus on teaching, learning, and developing distinctive, innovative programs, while students thrive on Westminster’s urban Sugar House campus within minutes of the Rocky Mountains.

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