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Innovations in education at UC Davis

By Andy Fell on November 16, 2015 in

UC Davis is a global partner in advancing the education of students from level K-12 through colleges in all fields of study.

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  • Center for Poverty Research: Community College programs increase income
  • Flipping classrooms to change college STEM teaching
  • School of Education professor to further studies in college preparation and completion with grants
  • Early intervention in dyslexia can narrow achievement gap, UC Davis study says
  • Teaching math and science with robots
  • Chemwiki is a free alternative to costly textbooks

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Center for Poverty Research: Community College programs increase income

Community college programs in career and technical education — especially in health professions — lead to significant financial returns, especially for women, according to a new policy brief by the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research.

The policy brief summarizes a new study that measured how much a California community college degree, or certificate in the six largest career and technical education disciplines, increased income. The researchers found that on average, an associate’s degree in these fields increased earnings by 33 percent, and shorter term certificates raised earnings by up to 27 percent.

“Understanding the payoffs to completing these programs is particularly important in California, where two-thirds of all college students attend a community college,” said Ann Stevens, the brief’s co-author. Stevens is an economist and the director of the Center for Poverty Research. The brief’s other co-authors are Michal Kurlaender, an associate professor at the School of Education, and Michel Grosz, a Ph.D. candidate in economics.

“Declining real wages and record high unemployment for those without college degrees make it essential that we understand what programs can most benefit these workers,” said Stevens.

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Flipping classrooms to change college STEM teaching

UC Davis is one of a handful of U.S. universities pioneering efforts to “flip” large classrooms from traditional chalk-and-talk lectures to interactive, discussion- and problem-based learning. The new approach aims to engage students and go beyond memorization and regurgitation of information to interpretation and application, said Assistant Vice Provost Marco Molinaro, who heads the UC Davis Educational Effectiveness Hub (formerly iAMSTEM Hub).

Molinaro’s team focuses on large STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). They are working, for example, with teachers leading Introductory Biology 2A, the first class UC Davis undergraduates take in biological sciences. Other projects include classes in introductory chemistry, math, engineering and psychology. 

“We’ve been able to raise expectations of student performance, dramatically increase the level of interpretation in tests, all while maintaining grades,” Molinaro said.

The goals of the hub are to better prepare students to succeed in the workplace or graduate school, and to address the “achievement gap” for minority students, Molinaro said.

“With these new approaches, students learn more and students with different learning styles are helped to succeed,” he said.

Making such major changes to teaching programs is not necessarily quick or easy, but Molinaro said he’s very optimistic they can change how teaching is delivered at UC Davis. Collecting data on how students are performing is crucial.

“My job is to make our teaching more effective through best practices and a culture of data,” he said.

The iAMSTEM Hub was established at UC Davis in 2012 to promote evidence-based improvements in teaching in STEM fields, with a special goal of improving retention of students from underrepresented minorities. In 2013, UC Davis was one of eight universities selected by the American Association of Universities to receive grants in an effort to improve STEM education, underwritten by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

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School of Education professor to further studies in college preparation and completion with grants

Michal Kurlaender, associate professor in the UC Davis School of Education, was recently awarded three significant research grants:

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Early intervention in dyslexia can narrow achievement gap, UC Davis study says

Identifying children with dyslexia as early as first grade could narrow or even close the achievement gap with typical readers, according to a new study by researchers at UC Davis and Yale University.

The data indicate that it is no longer acceptable to wait until a child is in third grade or later before undertaking efforts to identify or address dyslexia.

“If the persistent achievement gap between dyslexic and typical readers is to be narrowed, or even closed, reading interventions must be implemented early, when children are still developing the basic foundation for reading acquisition,” said Emilio Ferrer, a UC Davis psychology professor. He is lead author of the article published in the Journal of Pediatrics in November.

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Teaching math and science with robots

Using robotics to change how math, science and STEM subjects are taught is the aim of the Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education at UC Davis. Founded in 2010 by Harry Cheng, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, the center’s programs are in use in about 200 middle and high schools across California, affecting some 10,000 students. The center focuses on algebra, a gatekeeper for high school graduation and careers in STEM fields.

Hands-on activities in robotics can inspire and engage students who are otherwise turned off by STEM subjects, Cheng said.

Recently, the center released C-STEM Studio, a free download of all the code and documentation needed for teachers to use the center’s curriculum, including programming both real and virtual robots. C-STEM Studio includes RoboBlockly, a Web-based puzzle-piece programming tool that generates real C++ code for real and virtual robots.

Schools using the C-STEM curriculum can attend the annual C-STEM Day held every May at UC Davis, and in the past two years in Orange County. The center also runs workshops for teachers, an annual conference on computing and STEM teaching, and a highly successful robotics and programming summer camp for girls. Since 2010, the center has received over $5 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, as well as support from the California Department of Education and corporate sponsors.

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Chemwiki is a free alternative to costly textbooks

"ChemWiki" is a free online alternative to costly textbooks. Since March 2014, the wiki, created by UC Davis chemistry professor Delmar Larsen, has saved students over $1.5 million when used as an assigned text in courses at 10 different institutions, including UC Davis. The site attracts over 5.5 million visitors a month, making it the most visited domain among UC Davis’ websites.

An undergraduate general chemistry textbook can cost hundreds of dollars. Yet the material in such textbooks is well established, in some cases for decades, Larsen notes. 

Larsen started ChemWiki with entries written by students and vetted by volunteers. Much of the content is now gathered, with permission, from course notes, professors' websites and other locations across the Internet.

A recent study of UC Davis chemistry students using ChemWiki as their principal reference versus a standard textbook found no essential difference in learning, Larsen said.

Larsen leads a consortium including UC Davis, Sonoma State University, Diablo Valley College, Hope College (Michigan), Howard University (Washington, D.C.), College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University (Minnesota), and the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, to expand ChemWiki and an associated network of other scientific wikis in chemistry, physics, biology, math and other subjects. The project receives funding from the National Science Foundation.

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Media contact(s)

Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533, ahfell@ucdavis.edu

Karen Nikos-Rose, 530-219-5472, kmnikos@ucdavis.edu

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