SMET 101: Introduction to Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology is a course taught in some of the partner community colleges around the state. The course is an introduction to the science and engineering disciplines for students who want to explore which science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields to enter and develop concrete pre-transfer plans for achieving their goals. The course is designed to promote active engaged learning in a seminar setting. With some elements of the Freshman Year Experience (FYE) model, SMET 101 involves academic skills development, but with a significant departure from the traditional FYE curriculum, the course uses the context of extensive planning and career exploration in the STEM disciplines to teach these skills. The course works to promote independent critical thinking skills with a personal learning portfolio called the Academic Achievement Plan (AAP). In the creation of the AAP, the course development team set out to build on the philosophy of FYE to “assimilate new students in to the college environment” (Hankin and Gardener 1996). As part of that philosophy, primary emphasis is placed on assisting students to become engaged students who take responsibility for their own learning, academic planning, and professional goals. Thus, several tools for increasing students’ awareness of and sense of control in making academic/professional choices and decisions are also included. Importantly, the AAP curriculum is unique in that instructors at various institutions can tailor activities and formats to appropriately meet specific needs of their students
The course highlights degree planning, critical thinking, and problem solving, using a writing-to-learn approach. Through short, impromptu, or otherwise informal writing tasks, students learn to think through key concepts or ideas with the use of the writing-to-learn approach, a key learning tool/strategy of the course. Based on various theoreticians and practitioners (Adams, Britton, Bruner, Emig, Fulwiller and Young, Herrington, Knowblauch and Bannon, Odell, Parker, and others), this approach to learning promotes and fosters critical thinking, and as Fulwiller and Young assert in Language Connections: Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, “language provides us with a unique way of knowing and becomes a tool for discovering, for shaping meaning, and for reaching understanding” (p. x). Thus, writing is used in various assignments and with different strategies to engage students through writing, one of the most effective ways to develop thinking. In addition to this approach, the course adopts a model first developed by Dr. Mary French as part of an NSF-supported astronomy project. This model – Techniques for Increasing Thinking and Learning (TILTS) – is based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Higher Order Thinking Skills and provides a heuristic for students to “think through” challenges and decisions. The model is comparable to general processes of academic inquiry and is specifically discussed with students in terms of its similarities to scientific method and engineering design process. With this technique, instructors are provided strategies for helping students get the most from their study materials, activities, events, and experiences. With the techniques of summary, questioning, anticipation, application, reflection, evaluation, and articulation of the subject at-hand, the TILTS helps students to “break things down” for better understanding, leading to the ability to think more critically and view things from various perspectives, an essential skill in problem solving.
Instructors in STEM are provided training to teach the course in a one-day orientation session held at various locations around the state. This ‘Instructors Institute’ provides an opportunity for instructors and project staff to review course materials and assignments, and discuss instructional approaches, such as writing-to-learn. In addition, the training provides a focus on strategies and techniques to foster critical thinking skills in students with the TILTS. With this technique, students are provided strategies to see gain better understanding of their class experiences, such as assigned readings and videos of NMSU’s SMET 101 professional and successful student panel videos sent to instructors throughout the semester. New Mexico AMP provides ongoing support to instructors on a regular or as-needed basis and provides the AAP, the curriculum for the course.
The ultimate goal of the SMET 101 course is to increase confidence in the academic pathway students select by broadening their knowledge in the STEM professions and its disciplines and by strengthening the academic and professional skills required to succeed in any STEM career. With considerable emphasis on promoting articulation and transfer of students from community colleges to the various state universities, a major aspect of the vision for SMET 101 is to assist instructors to help students personally, socially, and academically. With the goal of assisting students to assimilate into the culture of academia, SMET 101 helps students early on when they tend to feel more lost with respect to the major. And in community college, where students live off campus, SMET 101 helps to orient students to the resources and help that is available, thus encouraging retention.
Interviews with community college instructors who have taught SMET 101 revealed many positive outcomes of teaching the course in five different areas: pedagogy transfer, modification of teaching methods, writing-to-learn, critical thinking/problem solving, and assessment. Eighty-two percent (82%) of the instructors concurred that there is substantial transfer of skills for students, which include writing skills, critical thinking skills, and problem solving skills. In addition, these instructors noted that in class activities that required problem solving and critical thinking, students verbalized their thinking processes and appeared to be making good connections with the TILTs approach. Instructors further noted that student writing and use of critical thinking and problem solving skills improved gradually throughout the semester as students practiced these skills; therefore, it is probable that these skills will transfer into their academic and professional lives. In addition, instructors gained a personal benefit from teaching the course by the transfer of pedagogy and modification of teaching methods. The most prominent pedagogy transfer occurred in the areas of writing and problem solving/critical thinking, and modified understanding of learning styles. Particularly significant is the contention that instructors make about writing pedagogy. Although only 27% of the instructors maintained previous knowledge and training in writing-to-learn, all of them stated that this pedagogy would transfer to their teaching of other classes. Also noteworthy is the assertion that many of the instructors make that writing-to learn strategies help them to teach connections between subjects and strategies in all of their classes. One instructor referred to this as ”looping,” meaning the connection of subject matter and strategies. Instructors contended that writing is a remarkable “tool” that helps students discover how to think and solve problems in all of their classes. One-half of all the teachers noted they are much more aware of how to engage students with critical thinking and problem solving skills, which transfers to teaching in all of their classes. Specifically prominent was the perspective that teachers view the TILTs as a technique that helps students to synthesize information and see the entire picture better. The questioning technique of the TILTs particularly helps students to challenge assumptions, act in the role “devil’s advocate, which helps students see various sides of an issue or topic and generate ideas.
For more information on SMET 101, please call Jeanne Garland at New Mexico AMP, statewide SMET 101 Coordinator.