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Illustration of Shamindri Arachchige speaking with a student

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How is the College of Science meeting demands of larger classes?

Departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, and Physics win university honors for their large classroom learning experience.

Nearly 300 students and a single instructor lecturing on general chemistry: For many that sounds like a recipe for sleep, but on a March day in Davidson Hall, a large class of Virginia Tech students closely followed advanced instructor Shamindri Arachchige as she spoke about acid-base equilibria.

The general chemistry course is one of Tech's largest, with about 3,000 students enrolling annually, and also one of the most important, since chemistry is a foundational subject for many other disciplines. 

As the class progresses, Arachchige used an array of tools to keep the students engaged. Standardized notes were projected on the wall behind her, as well as on four ceiling-mounted flatscreens, ensuring that students around the room could follow along.

Occasionally Arachchige posed a question, triggering a response from students, who entered their answers using iClickers. Midway through class, she asked a pair of student volunteers to help demonstrate a principle using brightly colored liquids in beakers on lab tables.

These techniques, used by instructors across the College of Science, keep large introductory classes feeling relatively small and personable—and therefore easier for students to follow.

The college's success was rewarded recently with a 2016 Exemplary Department Award, which recognized departments that excelled in "developing and sustaining effective large class instruction." 


Professor Shamindri (Shami) Arachchige teaching a Chemistry Class, College of Science.

Chemistry class
Virginia Tech Department of Chemistry advanced instructor Shamindri Arachchige lectures to hundreds of students in a general chemistry class.

"This year's University Exemplary Departments are engaging their students in large classroom settings by developing and sustaining effective learning environments—all resulting in a greater depth of student learning at Virginia Tech," said Provost Thanassis Rikakis.

The winners for 2016 were the Department of Biological Sciences, the Department of Chemistry, and the Department of Physics. All three departments are in the College of Science.

Tiffany Shoop, assistant director for special programs at the Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER), which facilitates the awards, said the winning departments demonstrate a range of effective teaching strategies. "We know that in the large classroom setting, there are unique challenges for instructors," Shoop said, "but it's become clear to us at CIDER that faculty are really finding ways to give students meaningful and engaging learning experiences."

In the physics department, Alma Robinson (physics, philosophy '02, education master's, '03), teaches in residence at Virginia Tech's PhysTEC program, an initiative to train highly qualified physics teachers. Robinson said she feels a responsibility to prepare students for the rest of their undergraduate experience.

"Oftentimes, students who come to a big university can feel a little bit lost," Robinson said. "Virginia Tech does a really good job of creating community so that doesn't happen. One of the ways is by making these first-year courses engaging. In our large courses, the instructors make sure that the students aren't just sitting there passively taking notes, they're discussing content with their classmates and making connections with the instructor or their peers."

In addition to the iClicker, many instructors use a concept known as the "flipped classroom," in which students read and learn the material beforehand so that class time can be dedicated to exploring its application in practice.

David Schnorbus (biological sciences '15) mentioned the power of demonstrations in a nomination letter for the chemistry department. "I recall that my very first college class was General Chemistry 1035 and I can vividly remember that I was blown away by the experience," Schnorbus wrote. "Near the end of the class, Dr. Arachchige cut the lecture early so that she could perform an experiment involving several balloons filled with different gases. I just remember saying to myself after leaving class that day, being that it was my first college class ever, I felt like college was going to be awesome!"

In the physics department, many first-year students attend classes in what are known as SCALE-UP classrooms with whiteboards on the walls and circular tables for small group work.

Samantha Spytek (physics '17), who is pursuing an accelerated master's degree in education while finishing her undergraduate degree, wrote in her nomination letter that the physics department and the PhysTEC program in particular have become a national model for training future physics teachers, as well as building a first-year foundation for students.

"It was these experiences that led me to the path I'm on now and made me personally believe that I can succeed at teaching physics to others," Spytek wrote.

Student at a chemistry lab bench in advanced instructor Shamindri (Shami) Arachchige's chemistry class in the College of Science.

Chemistry lab bench
A student in Shamindri Arachchige's chemistry class takes part in an experiment.

In the Department of Biological Sciences, two introductory courses, which provide foundational knowledge and methodology for about 1,500 students each semester, were converted from the traditional lecture format to an active, student-centered approach called the Active Classroom during 2013 and 2014.

"The goal of the Active Classroom is to improve retention of key scientific and biological concepts, improve critical thinking skills, provide teamwork experience, and maintain and promote enthusiasm for life-science careers," said Richard Walker, the associate professor and associate department head of biological sciences who led the conversion.

Students in the Active Classroom view an online, narrated lecture prior to each class. The classes then are broken into 20 minutes of instructor-led review and an introduction to that day's activity; 45 minutes working in teams to answer activity problems; and a 10-minute summary of the major conclusions.

Biological sciences is one of the university's largest departments, with more than 1,000 undergraduate students and 90 graduate students. The department also won the Exemplary Department Award in 2002. 

This is the third Exemplary Department Award in a row for the Department of Chemistry. Physics won the award in 1999 and 2003.

Each department will receive a portion of the $40,000 award.