Laurie McNeil is the PI on a large STEM grant to enhance the teaching of UNC undergraduate physics courses.
Laurie McNeil is the PI on a large STEM grant to enhance the teaching of UNC undergraduate physics courses. (Photo by Steve Exum)

A $499,340 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) grant to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will enhance the teaching of undergraduate physics courses.

Physics and astronomy professor Laurie McNeil in the College of Arts and Sciences is the principal investigator (PI) on the three-year National Science Foundation award. Co-PIs include David Smith, Alice Churukian and Duane Deardorff in physics and astronomy, and Jean DeSaix in biology.

The award will be used to develop an introductory physics course sequence for life science majors to improve the students’ grasp of physics concepts and their understanding of the concepts’ relevance to biology. It will also focus on improving students’ ability to apply those concepts to solving complex problems in living systems.

The large introductory physics classes (enrollments of as many as 800 students each semester) will use a lecture/studio model. Teachers will maximize the instructional time in which students are actively engaged with the ideas under study, through hands-on activities, computer simulations and cooperative group problem-solving.

This approach, according to McNeil, has been shown through physics education research to be more effective for student learning than traditional lectures. 

The new project will reach across UNC academic departments and will also involve Duke University faculty.

“We will share the instructor materials and training program we develop with physics departments at other universities who wish to undertake a similar transformation,” McNeil said.

The National Science Foundation award is administered by the Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (TUES) program.

 

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