Innovative Student-Led Approach to Teaching Science to Non-Majors is ‘Changing the Conversation’

In her CORE 101 class, Heather Miceli puts students in charge of their own learning: Directing class discussions, creating and teaching content, grading themselves. Students say it’s increased their confidence and shown them how science is relevant in their everyday lives.

By Melanie Thibeault
A student in Heather Miceli's CORE 101: Scientific Investigations course gives a presentation on his group's website about evolution.
Jack ten Hope, a sophomore Construction Management major, presents his CORE 101: Scientific Investigation group's website on evolution to Professor Heather Miceli and other students.

BRISTOL, R.I. – Young children often ask an endless stream of questions to learn how the world works: Why is the sky blue? How do birds fly? For sophomore Sam Papcun, a Math and Secondary Education double major, that curiosity about science was rekindled this semester during her CORE 101: Scientific Investigations course, taught by Professor Heather Miceli, a science class designed for non-science majors.

“It brought back the little kid interest in science,” Papcun said about Miceli’s innovative student-based teaching style.

Each semester in Miceli's class, students are in the driver’s seat, directing class discussions, creating and teaching content to their peers, and grading themselves. They choose what they’d like to learn from a list of topics. They can dive into the ocean, explore space, or take a shot at vaccines.

This open pedagogical approach lets students lead the creation of their own educational content, which recently drew the attention of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Working in groups, students make or build upon publicly accessible websites made by CORE 101 students who came before them. It’s the first resource Miceli gives students when they start a new topic.

A portrait of Professor Heather Miceli outside
Heather Miceli

“Every word on the website was written by fellow CORE 101 students, not by scientists or me,” said Miceli, a lecturer of general education science who’s taught science to non-majors for 14 years and has been at RWU for eight.

Her course focuses less on traditional science instruction and more on the way science can impact students’ lives. “Instead of memorizing all these things, let’s have a conversation,” she said. To achieve this goal, students come to class with questions that dictate the day’s discussion. “I don’t prep a lecture ahead of time,” Miceli said.

“It’s a lot of work to do what she does. It’s far from the easiest way for her to teach this class,” said Jason Jacobs, dean of Undergraduate Studies. “It’s a really good example of somebody investing the energy and time in what she senses are the best pedagogical approaches.”

Student-Led Learning Boosts Confidence, Relevance

The way that students become both producers and consumers of scientific content “really collapses the whole structure,” Jacobs said. “It’s very democratic. Students are coming more and more to see themselves not as passive recipients of education but users of education.”

According to Jacobs, “the work Heather is doing is changing the conversation.”

Students agree. During their final project presentations at the end of fall semester, they praised Miceli, sharing how her class increased their confidence and showed them how science is relevant in their everyday lives. By taking away pressure to achieve certain grades, students said they’re more engaged and excited to learn.  

“This is the most I’ve learned about science in a class,” said Lila Kawash, a sophomore Political Science and English Literature double major, who said she’s not a big fan of the hard sciences. She enjoys the student-led structure, which gives her and her peers more leeway in how they learn. “I like the creativity,” she said. “I wish more classes could be like this.”

That’s exactly what Miceli wants to hear. “So many of them come in having had bad science experiences in high school, or they’re apathetic to science,” she said of her students. “They really enjoy doing this. The benefit is that they really do see science is a part of their lives.”

Based on their time in high school, several students said they were anxious to take a science course at RWU, but Miceli’s class was a game changer.

When asked what he learned in the class, Jack ten Hope, a sophomore Construction Management major, didn’t cite any scientific facts. His main takeaway: “Learning doesn’t have to be a stressful experience or one to dread.”  

Course Materials By Students, For Students

Back in 2017, having previously taught CORE 101 with lectures and exams and inspired by her time as an Open Educational Resources Faculty Fellow at RWU, Miceli began wondering if non-science majors could write a science textbook for other non-science majors. As part of the program, Miceli and other faculty fellows worked with Lindsey Gumb, an assistant professor and RWU’s scholarly communications librarian, on ways to use and/or create open resources in their classrooms.

A portrait of student Will Tainter-Gilbert
Will Tainter-Gilbert '24

Miceli’s textbook idea turned into websites. There are currently 11 sites covering artificial intelligence, climate change, DNA, energy sources, evolution, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), human population, nutrition, the ocean, space exploration, and vaccines. 

Students have responded well to the self-directed projects and feel less anxiety when creating content geared toward their peers. “It gives me more confidence to write about something I’m interested in,” said Will Tainter-Gilbert, a sophomore undeclared business major.

“You don’t need to feel the pressure of presenting to someone who knows more than you,” ten Hope added.

In December, The Chronicle of Higher Education spotlighted Miceli and her CORE 101 course, one of five interdisciplinary courses that are part of the University’s Core Curriculum.

CORE 101 courses are designed to allow faculty the flexibility to teach what they’d like, but “Heather has gone beyond that,” Jacobs said, by focusing the course on what students want to learn.

An Interdisciplinary, Innovative Approach

The class incorporates discussions of ethics, bias, and social justice issues, and Miceli said she’s inspired by many other professors. “I love learning from faculty in other departments. So many of my ideas come from people who teach in humanities,” she said. “It’s very interdisciplinary. There are days when I think I didn’t teach a lick of science.”

Both Jacobs and Miceli said they’d love to see more courses taught this way at RWU.

“A lot of our students have disdain for the CORE classes, which defeats the entire purpose of gen ed,” Miceli said. “I want my students to enjoy my class. I want them to enjoy science.”

According to Jacobs, students want “courses that are meaningful to them.”

Papcun and Emily Rosen, a sophomore journalism major, said they like being able to assess their own work throughout the semester and give themselves a grade. “The focus is on learning, not stressing about (grades),” said Rosen, who hasn’t taken another class at RWU with this approach.

In more traditional classes, students may feel pressure to focus on getting an A rather than on learning, Papcun said. “Kids do better when they feel safe to learn.” And, she said, she is more excited to learn when she can see the real-world relevance.

Three students present their website about human population.
Sophomores Sam Papcun (left), Lila Kawash (center), and Emily Rosen (right) present their website about human population as part of Miceli's CORE 101: Scientific Investigations course. 

Miceli’s approach permits students to “free themselves and be serious about learning,” said Jacobs, which gives them confidence to “study the things that matter to them.” By showing students how science is important to their lives, “general education science courses can be a powerful thing,” he said.

This course wouldn’t be possible without support from the University, especially Jacobs, Miceli said. “Changing an assessment practice to be so radical, that could only be done if you have support above you,” she said.

While many people around the country are focused on alternative grading methods, Jacobs said what Miceli is doing is unique to RWU. There are some RWU faculty using Open Educational Resources in their classrooms and others implementing ungrading policies, but Jacobs said he isn’t aware of anyone else incorporating both or to the same extent as Miceli.  

“She’s a big deal,” he said.