Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University

Learning Innovation Unit

Learning Innovation Fund Awards

Dr Odilla finlayson - How do we tackle the inter-disciplinary nature of science?

Principal applicant

Dr Odilla Finlayson

School or Unit

School of Chemical Sciences, CASTeL, Faculty of Science and Health

Additional Applicants

Eilish.McLoughlin, School of Physical Sciences, Eilish.McLoughlin@DCU.ie

Paul van Kampen, School of Physical Sciences, Paul.van.Kampen@DCU.ie

Michael Parkinson, School of Biotechnology, Michael.Parkinson@DCU.ie

Amount requested


Summary description

This project will develop an interdisciplinary, investigative module in science for first year science students to be offered in semester 2 of the academic year 2006-7. Students will be facilitated to work in small groups to tackle problems on the borders between the traditional disciplines of Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics such as sensors, biomedical devices, and cancer treatments.

Students will develop skills in group work and problem solving, be enthused by focusing on `real' science issues and will engage more with other science subjects so that they may see the direct relevance of these to their chosen subject of study. We anticipate significantly improved learning, retention and progression as a result. The impact of the project will be investigated by both quantitative and qualitative means and outcomes disseminated widely.

Project URL


Strategic Objectives

1. Creating and sustaining a dynamic learning partnership (1.1 Develop a culture of inquiry-led learning, 1.2 Reflective learning from practice). 3. Enhance learner achievement (3.2 Development of learning communities, 3.3 Retention and progression, 3.4 Assessment)

Strategic Context

Structured discussions, with the students (http://odtl.DCU.ie/projects/Structured_discussions/Structured_discussions.html) run over several years, show that students do not feel in control of their own learning, do not see the relevance of science subjects outside of their core discipline, are poorly motivated and struggle in examinations in those areas. Students' learning strategies become more strategic and surface over the course of the academic year (DCU PhD 2005 Orla Kelly).

Both groupwork (http://odtl.DCU.ie/talks/2000-2001/peertutoring/PPT-Slides/tsld001.htm) and PBL (http://www.DCU.ie/ovpli/liu/mich05.shtml) put the learner at the heart of a dynamic learning partnership where students constantly reflect on their learning with significantly improved student motivation and learning. They encourage habits of learning communities that can be further encouraged in subsequent years to develop a culture of inquiry-led learning. A cross-disciplinary approach developed by a learning team between the Schools of Chemistry, Physics and Biotechnology will reinforce material covered in lectures and lead to better integrated and deeper student learning.

Implementation Plan

The project will be carried out from June to September 2006 with implementation of the module on a pilot basis in semester 2 of academic year 2006-7. A team of students, comprising of 3 biologists, 3 chemists and 3 physicists, recruited from 3rd and 4th year undergraduates in science, will be employed for 3 months to develop a range of problems, in conjunction with and under the supervision of the project team. The target is to develop between 10 and 12 problems during this period.

The first meeting of the project team with the problem developers will be a one-day workshop session where specific problem areas are selected with particular learning objectives associated with each. These areas will then be allocated to three teams, (consisting of 1 biologist, 1 chemist and 1 physicist) who will then develop the specific problems. Weekly half-day whole group discussions will be held throughout the project.

The objectives of interesting, interdisciplinary and enquiry-based attributes will be to the forefront in development of the problems.

No obstacles are foreseen in developing the problems as some members of the team have been involved in developing EUSO (http://www.euso.DCU.ie) problems in the past and all members have experience of development of PBL and in facilitated groupwork.

First year science students (approx. 200 students from AS, AC, BT, ESH, GCB, CES, SI, and SE) will take one three hour PBL session per week in groups of four to six for the twelve weeks in Semester II. The problems will range from those that can be solved in one three hour session to ones that will require 2-3 sessions. Each student will be involved in solving 7 problems.


Ongoing qualitative feedback from students on each problem will be evaluated.

We will run a structured discussion with a randomly selected cohort of 20 first year students to tease out student perceptions of the PBL module and the science subjects outside their core disciplines, to establish how well these are integrated.

Student performance in first year science modules will be monitored and compared to that in previous years. The large sample size (>200) coupled with elegant statistical analysis (including ASSIST) will allow us to determine if there are real, quantitative effects on student performance.

The main impact will be on the 200 first year students. Indicators to the success of this project implementation will be:

? Development of suitable problems (the focus of this project application);

 Improved retention and progression of more confident students into 2nd year

 Improved performance in core science lecture modules

 Development of a workbook on fine-tuning problems

Dissemination and Sustainability

This project will be of interest both nationally and internationally. The evaluation of the project will be written up and disseminated both at OVPLI Teaching series within the university and will be submitted for publication in international science education journals.

Internationally, through EUSO, this work will be disseminated to other colleagues who are interested in pursuing such a project in their universities.

Once developed, it can become part of the first year experience and will be offered each year. The ongoing commitment to enhancing the first year experience of our students will ensure that demonstrators and tutors are made available to implement this project.

The main cost and time commitment is in developing the problems initially.

Detailed budget

Total budget 22,200.

9 problem developers 3 months each at 450 euro per month = 12,150

One day pre module for tutors (12 in total) in Oct for training in delivering such a module = 1500

Materials (mainly books, consumables to generate real experimental data) = 1,350

Total sought from the T&L fund 15,000

The Schools of Chemistry, Biotechnology and Physics have agreed to provide postgraduate tutors for the implementation of the module.

Faculty contribution 7,200.

Other Information

The team involved in this project are highly committed to student centred learning and well experienced in both facilitation of groupwork and in development of PBL modules in their own subject areas. Previously funded grants include:




Additionally, three of the four applicants have been awarded Teaching and Learning Fellowships.

Comments on the application process

Our proposal addresses a number of areas within the strategic context and it was very difficult to fully explain the strategic context of the project with so many areas to address within the specified word count. Likewise it is very difficult to outline the impact and full evaluation that will occur for this project within the allocated 150 words. Therefore, explanatory details have had to be omitted.