Developing a More Active, More Engaging Model of Higher Education Learning
Chemical engineering and materials science teaching assistant professor Sarah Goodman challenges the assumption that higher-education coursework — particularly at a graduate-level — must be dry to be rigorous
Stevens Institute of Technology Teaching Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Sarah Goodman recalls all too well how opaque university coursework can sometimes be, especially at a graduate level.
“When I took courses as a graduate student, I often walked away saying, ‘I have no idea what just happened,’” she said with a laugh. “I’d have to go home, read the textbook, do the problems. Only once I’d studied on my own did I finally understand what the professor was trying to say.”
Determined to offer a different kind of classroom experience, Goodman, who joined the Stevens faculty in August 2022, wants to create a more active learning environment that engages and enlightens rather than confuses her students — one that empowers them to put newly discovered knowledge into practice immediately.
She also wants to disabuse people of the notion that the measure of the quality of a course is in how dry or difficult it is to understand.
“From what I’ve seen, there's kind of a belief from both sides — from the student side and the professor side — that graduate courses have to be intimidating. You come in, you sit down, you take notes, you listen, and the material has to be presented in such a way that the students don't get it the first time. That how good or rigorous the graduate course is is based on how intimidating it is for the students,” Goodman said.
In contrast, she said, “I love to create an environment where I can feel like I'm not just creating this intimidation factor by throwing information at the students but helping them absorb that information.”
So what does a more active graduate class environment look like? More student-to-student interactions, discussions, group projects, and hands-on projects and lab experiments; fewer lectures and outside-the-classroom self-education sessions.
“I think you can have a rigorous course that can be really engaging and that can use methods that help the students to actually absorb the material during the class time,” Goodman said.
A penchant for pedagogy
Hailing from Princeton, New Jersey, Goodman earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Rutgers University in 2014. Already displaying an interest in teaching, she worked for two academic years as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate organic chemistry recitation and general chemistry lab courses and led a first-year student seminar.
Goodman also worked three years as an undergraduate research assistant in the university’s nanophotonics and organic opto-electronics lab — an experience which ultimately inspired her to pursue graduate work in materials science.
“I've always been interested in teaching and was actually debating between going into K-12 teaching right after undergrad or continuing with research and going to grad school. I decided I wasn't quite done with research,” she said.
Goodman earned her Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2020. Her doctoral research used spectroscopy and transmission electron microscopy to analyze and characterize the role of atomic defects in crystal structures of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
As a graduate student, Goodman worked as a teaching assistant in undergraduate courses in solid state chemistry and materials science. She also conducted K-12 STEM outreach, inviting local middle and high school students to campus to engage with the equipment in the microscopy labs.
Goodman was also awarded the MIT Changemaker Award for advocacy work at a local and legislative level relating to Title IX to reduce sexual discrimination, assault and misconduct on campus.
Like so many young professionals at the time, Goodman’s initial career plans were disrupted by the global shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. But thanks to her teaching and K-12 outreach experience, she was able to leverage her skills to apply them as a science teacher and curriculum developer for middle and high school students.
Although unexpected, the experience, she said, ultimately influenced her to expand her image of what higher education teaching can look like.
“My experience in K through 12 teaching really informs my work with undergrads and with graduate students because I got so many opportunities to explore different teaching styles and different hands-on activities that you might not initially think of as strategies that can be implemented in an undergraduate or graduate classroom,” she said. “But you can engage people at all levels and at all ages with some really fun, hands-on work. That's what I've tried to take from my experience in K through 12 teaching to higher education.”
Redesigning the design curriculum
Sara Goodman implemented her active learning model at Stevens in Fall 2022 with graduate courses in crystal structure and diffraction and a “special topics” course that focused on research-related “soft” skills, including how to write an abstract and research proposal and how to give a scientific presentation.
“I personally never got formally trained in any of those skills. I think it's really great that Stevens has a class where students can actually practice these skills before having to apply them in their research,” she said.
Graduate student response to Goodman’s more active learning classroom, she said, has been positive.
“I've been lucky to have a couple of really great groups of graduate students who have been willing to try different things, and that's been a lot of fun. I'm using surveys to measure student perceptions of these different activities, and so far it's been a good response,” she said.
“It’s also great to be at a place like Stevens where there are so many other faculty who are also studying pedagogy and active learning,” she added.
For the Spring 2023 semester, Goodman has shifted her focus to undergraduate education. In January she launched her redesign of a core undergraduate engineering course, now titled "Design with Materials."
Originally structured as three separate components — a lecture, lab and design projects conducted outside of class — the curriculum has been reimagined to bring these three elements together into one course, allowing students to better understand how lessons from each relate to and build off one another. The updated course also places a heavier emphasis on design.
“I'm excited to work on this new materials science course,” Goodman said. “Students are going to take what they learned during the large group lectures sessions and then implement that in small-group design sessions where they'll be given case studies to figure out what material they would choose for a certain application. They’ll research material properties and figure out the pros and cons of using different types of materials — including considering cost, societal factors like ethical sourcing of the materials, carbon emissions and the lifecycle of the material. So they'll get to put what they learned into a real-world context.”
Knowledge gleaned from the course will help students from all engineering majors determine the fitness of a particular material for their research, both now and in the future.
But Goodman’s ultimate goal is for her students to recognize the role of materials science in everything they do — not only beyond their major, but beyond the classroom itself.
“Materials science relates to everything we use in our day-to-day lives. Students are using materials science whether they know it or not,” she said. “Everything is made of something. That's what I hope students will take away from the course.”
Building community and trust
Joining Stevens as a teaching faculty member, Goodman said, affords her the opportunity and flexibility to take advantage of her strengths while pursuing the many avenues of pedagogy, research and outreach that interest her.
“What draws me to teaching is that I get to introduce students to the tools we use for research — to bring them into the lab and let them see what researchers are doing and get to try it themselves,” she said.
As part of her efforts, Goodman is currently working on initiatives to improve community-building opportunities for graduate students across the department.
“Often grad students will spend so much time in their labs with this certain handful of people who are their lab mates. But we have so many graduate students in different buildings across campus,” she said. “So I'm working on creating opportunities for students to come together and create more of a sense of community within the department, which was disrupted a little bit due to COVID.”
Goodman hopes an increased sense of community among students will not only benefit them personally and professionally but also make it easier for them to engage in an active learning classroom.
“We have students who are coming from many different types of undergraduate experiences and different comfort levels with active learning. And if you add into that the language barrier that's present for some of our international students, that can make students hold back from participating,” she explained. “If you want to do these activities, you have to get people comfortable with each other and comfortable in the class environment. So what I'm particularly studying is the effect of community-building on graduate students’ response to active learning — whether they need to have a sense of community, a sense of trust in order to engage with these activities and further their learning.”
While her professional interest is in studying and applying methods of active learning in higher education, Goodman’s personal goal above all, she said, is to create an academic environment that is open and welcoming to students of all levels, years and backgrounds.
“Part of what motivated me to come back into academia and to become a teaching professor is that I really want to help students have a good experience,” she said. “Ultimately, my goal is for my class to be a welcoming environment where students can explore and have fun.”