Dean's Newsletter

A newsletter from Dean Katherine S. Newman

Gateways to a Brighter Future

General Physics anyone? Every year, approximately 14% of the Johns Hopkins University undergraduate student body enrolls in this challenging course—a core requirement for many science majors. Students often remember foundational courses like General Physics as foreboding, in part because many of them involve mountains of memorization, seemingly abstract quantitative methods, and little excitement. At the Krieger School, we want to ensure our entry-level “gateway” science courses defy these stereotypes, and engage students in active learning that will introduce them to the experience of discovery, experimentation, and collaboration.


To that end, we have been in the process of rethinking these foundational courses. With the support of Provost Lloyd Minor, who is facilitating a revolution in science education across all schools in the university, Johns Hopkins is embarking on the Gateway Sciences Initiative—a series of pedagogical ventures designed to improve our already globally renowned introductory science, engineering, and quantitative courses.

A competitive grant process yielded 29 proposals from faculty across the university. Teams of peer reviewers examined every one of them and made hard decisions about which ones to support in this first generation of gateway initiatives. “The Krieger School did exceptionally well,” Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education Steven David told me. “There are a wide variety of programs, all designed to be scalable and replicable, that will enhance the student experience.”

For example, the Department of Mathematics will use its grant to produce as many as 250 short online videos for 10 different courses. The camera will zoom in close on the lecturer’s white board as he or she completes a complicated formula while offering step-by-step narration. Students will be able to digest and review these lessons on their own time; pausing, rewinding, or re-watching the video tutorial as they see fit. Our mathematicians foresee a time when students will watch these problem-solving sessions before they come to class and hope this will preserve more classroom time for deeper exploration.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy will receive a grant to orchestrate a major modernization of the General Physics course. Students will see real data in class, work as teams to analyze it, and debate possible interpretations of the patterns they see with their peers and instructors. In collaboration with the JHU  Center for Educational Resources, the department will update teacher training and develop a pilot General Physics course that students will find more engaging, one that eschews rote learning. Our faculty will visit peer universities that are similarly engaged in the development of innovative solutions for this course and will compare ideas hatched in the Krieger School with those underway elsewhere.

The Departments of Chemistry and Biology will build courses and accompanying labs to transition students who have AP credits from high school into a demanding laboratory environment—one that will keep them on the fast-track to more advanced work in these fields. Some of the brightest scholars from this cadre will be well-suited for the chemistry department’s other initiative: a peer-led, team learning model for Introductory Chemistry, in which students who have done well in the course will be recruited to facilitate problem solving and discussion sessions with small groups of younger students. Meanwhile, others might enlist in the biology department’s new project lab. Instead of simply lecturing on virology and genomics, our biology faculty will guide students as they isolate, characterize, annotate, and publish the sequence of a phage—a virus that can infect a bacterium.

And then there’s a new plan afoot that combines the talents of the Krieger School and the Whiting School of Engineering, which will partner in the creation of an “Active Learning eStudio.” It will feature eight movable pods (each with a tablet PC), a large flat panel display, a white board, and an instructor’s podium. That podium will contain a tablet of its own, connected to all the other devices, with which the instructor can highlight student work on the big screen, quickly share information, watch students solve problems in real time, or demonstrate a process directly onto a student’s screen. Increasing the interactive quality of science courses is a key goal for nearly all the gateway initiatives, since this is much closer to the experience of real scientists in the lab, for whom back-and-forth of problem solving comes naturally.

Active learning with Vice Dean Gregory Ball

Active learning with Vice Dean Gregory Ball

Beyond improving our own practice as educators, we hope the Gateway Sciences Initiative will help to transmit to our students the vital nature of science. “It is so important to maintain the excitement of science, especially freshman year,” Vice Dean for Science and Research Infrastructure Gregory Ball noted. The more undergraduates we have leaping out of bed next fall, eager to attend their (often early morning) introductory classes, the more we can look forward to a bumper crop of engaged and prepared scientists, physicians, and academics in 10 years’ time. But whether they pursue careers in science or in other fields, active learning processes will better instill the fine arts of problem formulation, critical reasoning, and communication. No matter what their walk of life in their adult years, these are capacities that will be critical to our students’ success.

For us, this is just the beginning of a new way of thinking about science education. And since such a large proportion of our students are enrolled in these classes, we think the innovations will be contagious across the curriculum, sparking collaborations between science departments that will infuse the research lab as well as the classroom. Kudos to Provost Minor for giving us this special opportunity.


Katherine S. Newman
James B. Knapp Dean