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Dr. Trun Earns National Recognition for Teaching Methods

Dr. Nancy Trun, associate professor of biology, has found a way to help students learn, remember what they learned and sharpen their critical thinking skills.

Because of her students’ outstanding critical thinking skills and knowledge retention rates, Science Education for New Civic Engagement and Responsibility (SENCER) and The Critical Thinking Assessment Test named Trun’s Microbiology Superlab 373 class method a national model for service-learning last year and one of a handful of Successful Projects nationwide, along with programs at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Clemson, and Purdue universities.

Additionally, she received a $205,000 award from the National Science Foundation to further test and assess the method, called Application-Based Service Learning; the grant is being used to develop interdisciplinary learning communities among several universities.

“Dr. Trun’s teaching methods hold the potential to change how future scientists learn and think about their research,” said Dean David W. Seybert of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. “The results that Dr. Trun achieved with her students are remarkable and could help to redefine science education at all levels.

“Dr. Trun and other faculty in the Bayer School are providing exemplary execution of the teacher-scholar model that we hold in such high esteem at Duquesne,” Seybert continued. “Dr. Trun’s engagement of our undergraduates in this unique laboratory curriculum represents an exemplar of the types of novel methods needed to establish new paradigms in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.”

The Critical Thinking Assessment Test uses 15 essay questions to measure critical thinking skills at the beginning and the end of a course. Among 3,000 students tested nationwide, the difference between freshman and seniors was a 5 point gain. In Trun’s class at Duquesne, students showed a 7 point gain in one semester.

“That’s the biggest gain in critical thinking the test developers had ever seen, and the biggest gain measured in critical thinking from over 40 institutions using the test around the country,” Trun said.

How did it happen? “I think it’s because of the way the class is taught,” said Trun. “It’s novel research on a community problem; students become independent and think in the lab. Active learning is a huge part of this. Students have to get involved and interpret the data to determine what experiment to do next. Over 2,000 peer-reviewed articles say active learning leads to impressive gains in learning.”

What students learned in the process is a point of pride. Trun piloted Application-Based Service Learning, working with collaborators at LaRoche College, and conducted research on the impact of the method on learning—again, with extraordinary results.

Using a lecture class as a comparison, students remembered 58 percent of the information they’d learned in a lecture-only class after five months.

With the same professor, the same students and the same exam, but by implementing Trun’s Application Based Service Learning lab method, students five months later showed an outstanding 95 percent retention.

“That’s a huge increase in how much they learned and how much they retained,” observed Trun, who was part of a Duquesne team invited to the National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Education in Biology at Yale University this summer.

In the six years that Trun and her Duquesne collaborators, including assistant professors of biology Drs. Becky Morrow and Lisa Ludvico, have turned labs into prime learning situations, Trun noted that only two students have dropped the course.

“All of the rest of them have risen to the occasion,” she said, starting with the required seven hours of lab work over three days.

As the research questions grab students, they start showing up daily, amassing as many as twice the hours expected. “It’s no longer about, ‘I have work to be done for this class,’ but ‘I have to find the answers to this question.’ As they gain confidence, they gain independence,” Trun said.

The projects these biology and health-science majors students have been focusing on in this service-learning project relate to feral cats, including an examination of whether feral cats carry more disease causing bacteria than house cats. After examining more than 400 sets of cat samples, students came to the conclusion they don’t.

For students, who often recommend the lab class to others, one of the things they learn is working in a lab isn’t always as expected.

“The temperament and attitude to work successfully in a lab is not necessarily brilliance. You really have to get in there and see if you like it,” Trun said. “What happens is that students at different levels start to understand what’s so exciting about science. The students put significant effort into the lab; they’re not afraid of hard work and they like to be challenged.

“There is a huge push across the country for new and better ways to teach STEM, and it’s definitely happening in higher education too,” said Trun.

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