OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Top Oregon Prof: participatory science key to learning

10/10/1996

CORVALLIS - A university educator who decries the lack of scientific understanding among today's students - and has taken innovative approaches to address the problem - was today named the 1996 Oregon Professor of the Year.

Janine Trempy, an Oregon State University associate professor of microbiology who is spoken of as a mentor, inspiration, helper and friend, was honored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

A state such as Oregon that increasingly looks to high technology and other advanced professions for its economic future cannot tolerate students who lack basic understanding of scientific concepts, the ability to think independently and to collaborate in teams, Trempy says.

OSU, she said, not only allowed but encouraged her to do something about decades of science courses that provided stale lectures, abysmal student retention of knowledge and alienation of students not majoring in science.

The results have been impressive.

Taking one particularly popular class from Trempy "turned out to be the most dramatic turning point in my academic career," said Scott Mogull, an OSU student who blended majors in psychology and microbiology.

Another student said Trempy's "presence is commanding enough to keep even the drowsiest student awake, and she makes even the most difficult material easy to follow." A liberal studies major said, "I was scared to death to take an upper division science class, but Dr. Trempy made the material both approachable and fun."

Lynette Bennett, a sociology student, said "OSU students are fortunate to have a professor like her challenging the old systems and...break away from traditional teaching techniques. Janine encouraged us to think, and challenged us to reach beyond our personal expectations for learning."

The conventional methods for teaching science to the non-science major, Trempy says, are essentially a failure.

Only one adult out of 10 in the United States feels informed about science and technology, she said.

A vast majority of the nation's students decide against science as a major or career. Those who do take courses often retain very little information. Industry leaders are shocked and alarmed.

The problems, Trempy said, run from poorly-prepared K-12 teachers to college courses that alternately bore, frighten or alienate students.

"If it was anything like my experience, general science courses in college were equated to long-winded lectures, intimidating tests and non-applicable lab experiments," Trempy said.

To address that, Trempy joined the OSU faculty in 1990 determined to create courses where students acted, rather than just listened. Where they worked together to solve real problems. Where they remembered what they learned. And where students ranging from philosophy to physical education worked together to share their expertise and learn directly from each other.

These ideas reached their ultimate fruition in one of the university's most popular courses, "The World According to Microbes." It was Trempy's brainchild and it's working wonders.

The course is taken by a broad spectrum of students from across the university, with academic advisers in several colleges helping to fashion a diverse student mix. In the course, small groups of about four students each are required to solve a contemporary, real problem involving microbes.

A group, for instance, was recently assigned to recommend alternative ways to clean up the toxic waste left in mining processes.

They broke into separate roles as scientist, environmentalist, engineer and lawyer. They gathered information from multiple sources, prepared reports and a video, considered political and legal angles, the economic costs of the issue, the public relations implications. They created a plan, presented it to the class, defended their conclusions and their rationale.

In the process, one team member became so enthralled she decided to change majors from liberal arts to microbiology.

"When done properly, the students learn how to discriminate between fact and fiction," Trempy said. "They experience highly charged public debate relating to a controversial issue. And the barriers, the stereotypes that once separated science and non-science majors get broken down."

"In the past we have forgotten," she said, "that it is the process of acquiring knowledge, and not the knowledge itself, that empowers a person to learn. Students want to become experts and to share their expertise."

An active learning approach does that, she said, and it may hold the key to future jobs, an educated public and scientifically-literate citizens.