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General Education Featured Faculty


Dr. Melissa Dieckmann  
Department of Physics, Geosciences, and Astronomy 

  • What General Education course(s) are you teaching? In what Element?

I currently teach GLY 102 Earth Science for Elementary Teachers and GLY 109 Great Moments in Earth History, both of which are in Element 4. I have previously taught 3 other courses in the science-based general education element.

  • Why do you enjoy teaching in our General Education program?

Science anxiety and science phobia are real phenomena in our nation. Distrust of science and scientists impacts policies, regulations, and laws at the local, national, and international level; and personal attitudes and values about science-based evidence can impact our personal health and well-being. Students with high science anxiety or science distrust are not likely to major in a STEM field, but they are required to take two general education Element 4 courses. This is likely our only opportunity to quell the science anxiety, show students how science can impact their lives, and develop trust in science-based evidence and the methods that scientists use to answer questions and solve problems. By showing the relevance of science in their lives, students begin to recognize the value of science-based evidence in decision-making. Project-based learning and critical thinking exercises show students that the goal of science education is not to stuff their heads with “useless facts,” but to give them the tools to address real problems in our global community and their personal lives. Seeing that transformation from anxiety and skepticism to understanding and trust is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my profession.

  • As a faculty member, what is your role in teaching students in General Education courses?

In GLY 102, my role is to prepare future elementary teachers to successfully pass the Praxis 5005 certification exam, to familiarize them with the Next Generation Science Standards that they will be required to teach in the classroom, to model research-based, engaging science activities for their elementary classroom, and to demonstrate how children’s literature can be used to teach science while they are teaching literacy.  In GLY 109, my role is to show students how scientists come to conclusions about how the Earth formed and how it functions, and how to apply scientific knowledge and skills to their lives. In all cases, my role is to show students how science personally impacts their lives, and why it is a necessary part of their knowledge base.

  • What recommendations do you have for faculty teaching General Education courses at EKU? 

There are two different types of general education courses that I believe require different strategies. The first type of course is one that is used as a supporting course in various degree programs across the university and/or as an introductory course in your department’s degree programs. The second is what I call a “free-range” course, one that is not tied to any degree program. I teach each of these types of courses and employ different philosophies of teaching in each one.

Regardless of the type of general education course you teach, the two most important recommendations that I can offer are: 1) you set the tone for the course, and 2) know your audience. 

  • Setting the tone for your class: The first impression that your students get about your course occurs on the first day of class. I used to go over the syllabus, talk about the course requirements, classroom rules, etc. It was boring for all of us, set an authoritarian tone that discouraged student engagement, and set the wrong tone. Now, I imagine the outcome that I want to achieve at the end of the semester (see above), and I set the groundwork for that outcome on the first day. Instead of rules and syllabus reading, we start with an activity (not an icebreaker) that sets the stage for the semester. I am also very honest with my students. I bluntly tell them that I am aware that many of them have science anxiety, feel that they are not capable of being successful in a science course, and likely chose my course because it is NOT chemistry or physics (sorry, chemists and physicists!). I assure them that I do not expect them to be budding scientists who are excited to be in the class, that my goal is to find their baseline and to move their learning forward from that point, and that I fully expect that they will be more comfortable with and more excited about science when they leave the class.

  • Know your audience: For both kinds of general education courses, the best way to engage students is to link the content of your course to their interests, values, and career aspirations. I review my roster and learn about my students’ declared degree programs. Throughout the semester, I purposely make connections between the course content and their personal lives, issues of interest to their communities, and their degree programs. Students fill out a Getting to Know You questionnaire that asks about how they learn best, known obstacles to potential success in the course, and gives them an open-ended prompt to tell me whatever it is that they feel I need to know. When students understand that you care about them as human beings, they become more engaged in the course.

For general education courses that are used as preparation for particular degree programs, it is important to communicate with those program faculty about why they selected your course to support their program and what they expect students to accomplish in your course. This may require you to add non-general education SLOs to your course curriculum, or to develop new activities and content to connect the general education goals and SLOs to the programmatic expectations. When students see that you are making connections between your course and their degree program, they find value in your course that leads to greater student engagement.

“Free-range” general education courses that are not tied to any degree program serve as a testing ground for me to try out new innovations, reconsider the student-teacher relationship, and help me to be a better teacher overall. The pitfall is that students in these courses are “only taking the course to check a box for graduation,” so student motivation and morale in the course can be low. The opportunity, though, is that you are not constrained by specific content and you can allow students to help determine the pathway that you will take in the course. When I started teaching my first “free-range” general education course, I had a very structured course outline where I chose all of the topics, used very traditional assessment, and basically used a similar approach to how I taught program requirements. As I became more comfortable with my abilities as a teacher, I allowed students to choose topics that met the course SLOs and gave them more control over both content and pedagogy. It was terrifying at first, but student engagement increased exponentially as the students took ownership of the class.

General education course design and teaching is a journey. You will grow, evolve, innovate, and revise in a non-linear fashion, but if you strive toward improvement, you will see an upward trend in course and teaching effectiveness that leads to meaningful learning for students.

Published on May 25, 2022

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