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Deliberative democracy model engages students in science learning

December 10, 2013

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    Photo by Karen Tedesco

To interest more students—especially women and underrepresented minorities—in science and math education, professor Liza Finkel is restructuring classrooms around the model of deliberative democracy. She became interested in the approach when observing Lisa Weasel, a former colleague at Portland State University, who builds her undergraduate biology class for non-majors around three scientific issues that have sparked controversy. Dr. Weasel’s approximately 200 students work through three stages to examine a topic—for example, a debate inspired by Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts in New York City to limit the size of sugary drinks. The first component is a traditional lecture, the second involves a critical review of research and news articles on the subject, and the final piece, a deliberative democracy exercise, breaks students into small groups for debate.

Finkel and Weasel presented their research on the effectiveness of this model for engaging students with science and math on November 1 at the Association of American Colleges and University’s 2013 Network and Academic Renewal Conference, to a packed room of over 100 researchers and educators. The researchers led attendees in a 10-minute model democratic deliberation on the sugary drinks issue. Afterward, they explained that surveys showed students becoming more interested in science and more convinced of the importance of understanding scientific concepts after discussing its practical applications. How the body turns sugar into fat, for instance, becomes relevant when determining if people can safely process 32-oz soft drinks. Women students in particular showed increased engagement in class. Finkel said women might appreciate the opportunity to work in groups and learn about science concepts in terms of their bodies and identities.

After the presentation, audience members expressed enthusiasm for the speakers to publish their findings, and one attendee asked to feature Weasel on her website. Weasel and Finkel are now drafting three articles for publication.

Finkel’s work on democratic deliberation dovetails with her role as the faculty fellow on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute C.A.U.S.E 2.0 grant, a four-year initiative to help undergraduate science and math faculty better serve underrepresented minority students and to increase the number of students who choose teaching as a career. Finkel would like to support undergraduate faculty in using democratic deliberation in Lewis & Clark’s science program. Such an approach represents the cutting-edge in classroom discussions.

“It’s a strategy that’s used in public policy in decision-making to bring more people into the discussion,” she said. “It hasn’t been used as much in educational settings.”

Learn more about Liza Finkel.

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