Grant to fund new science courses

A team of six Butler University professors received a $2,705 grant from Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilites, an institute that promotes science education through civic engagement.

The grant, which will be matched by Butler’s Institute for Research and Scholarship, will fund three courses integrating traditional science learning with involvement in the Indianapolis community.

Catherine Pangan, assistant professor of education, is heading one of the SENCER courses.

“We went to this conference and it was great because a lot of us realized that we had already been doing things that SENCER appreciates in course work,” Pangan said.

Pangan is using the grant money to improve an already existing course called Teaching Science and Social Studies.

“We’ve been doing this on our own,” Pangan said. “The extra money just helps.”

The class uses teaching resources, like the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, to make science education exciting.

“It’s really an incredible experience for the Butler students, and the IPS students as well,” Pangan said.  “By the time Butler students finish the course, they really get a sense for what a teacher’s life is like with planning, exhaustion, excitement, enthusiasm and all of that good stuff.”

The class is offered every semester.

Jennifer Kowalski, assistant professor of biological sciences, and Angela Ockerman, assistant professor of pharmacy practice, are taking tips from Pangan.

They designed a Natural World course that aims to teach basic biology and genetics in an accessible and interesting way.

“Science isn’t boring, just science textbooks are,” Ockerman said.  “SENCER realized that a lot of people were moving away from the basic sciences and because of that, they thought that those people might not be the most informed citizens.”

Ockerman is tag-teaming a SENCER course, Life Death and Immortality: How the HeLa Monster did, and didn’t, change the world.

The course focuses on a set of cells that have tested the Polio virus, were the first to go to outer space and were integral in developing modern cancer chemotherapy.

“We designed this course thinking, ‘What if you taught science in a way so that, right away, [students] saw how applicable it is to their lives? What if you taught it through some mechanism that they were interested in?’” Ockerman said. “You wouldn’t be interested if someone said, ‘These are the parts of a cell,’ but you would be interested if we discussed why certain people get cancer and others don’t.”

The course is aimed at teaching non-science majors.

“Even people who aren’t science majors need to have some understanding of science,” Ockerman said.  “We are trying to find a way to give people that understanding so that they can be good, informed citizens, in a way that’s interesting and fun.”

Ockerman said she believes the SENCER courses coincide well with Butler’s mission.

“We are already breaking down the silos of traditional thinking,” she said. “We know that everything is all connected, so why should you study it separately?”

The course will be offered in the fall of this year.

The final SENCER course is still in the planning process. Physics professor Brian Murphy, English professor Carol Reeves and chemistry professor Paul Morgan are utilizing the SENCER grant to develop a course called Indy Power.

Indy Power will explore the sources of power in the Indianapolis area and the issues associated with it.

Students will study power sources by going out and seeing them firsthand.

Paul Morgan, chemistry professor, said that science courses are traditionally taught in a classroom setting but that’s not always advantageous for the students.

“With that, what you end up sometimes losing is the practical aspect of why,” Morgan said. “What SENCER, and hopefully this class, would do is make it a tie-in between what we learn in class and what we can see as its usefulness in society.”

The course is targeted to begin in the summer of 2012.

Regardless of the courses they are teaching, the professors who received the grant are excited about the possibilities it has provided.

“What’s great is that there is a difference of perspective between the faculty as well,” Morgan said.
Ockerman agreed.

“I think it’s kind of fun too that both newer faculty and more seasoned faculty are interested in teaching integrated courses in this model,” she said.  “I think that’s exciting for students as well.”