Banda, Walsh Receive UT System Curricular Innovation Grants

Two College of Science faculty members received funding from a new University of Texas System grant program for their proposed service-learning projects.

Thursday, Jul 29, 2021 • Greg Pederson :

Two College of Science faculty members received funding from a new University of Texas System grant program for their proposed service-learning projects.  

Shanna Banda, associate professor of instruction in mathematics, and Melissa Walsh, assistant professor of instruction in biology, were among faculty selected to receive awards from the UT System Curricular Innovation Grant Program following a highly competitive application process. 

Archie Holmes, UT System executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, praised the projects and their potential to positively impact students’ academic success. Following recommendations from a review committee, Holmes and UT System Chancellor James Milliken determined which proposals would receive funding. 

“We were pleased with the quality of the proposals received and believe in their potential to improve student learning and success through curricular redesign,” Holmes said in a letter to faculty members whose projects were selected for funding. “Moreover, we are confident of the contribution the funded proposals will make towards fostering a culture of innovation across the UT System, and we look forward to seeing the impact your course redesigns will have on the students at your university.” 

Courses with a community engagement component, also known as service learning, utilize community service and student reflection to improve learning outcomes. Currently, there are only a handful of courses in the College of Science which include a service-learning component. Also, “service” is one of the five distinguishing activities in UTA’s Maverick Advantage program. 

Shannon Banda, statistics course 

Banda’s project, “Online Service‐Learning in Elementary Statistics, a High‐Impact Freshman‐Level Math Course,” was awarded $8,000 in funding. The project is intended to improve students’ academic success in the UTA Department of Mathematics’ entry-level statistics course, MATH 1308. Co-PI of the project is Alice Lubbe, senior lecturer in mathematics. 

Studies have shown that success in entry-level math classes is a critical factor in students’ likelihood of going on to attain a degree.  

“It has been shown that one factor contributing to academic success in math is a connection between course content and the real world,” Banda said. “Without this relationship, negative attitudes towards mathematics are often compounded. This produces low levels of student engagement in math courses, which can diminish the likelihood of student success.” 

Research has shown that service-learning programs, which are rare in mathematics classrooms, engage diverse populations by creating connections between classroom learning and the community to enhance student learning and the collegiate student experience. 

The newly designed MATH 1308 class, which will be offered online, will launch in the spring 2022 semester. 

“The curriculum will include virtual communication with community partners and the opportunity for online students to serve surrounding organizations and use data to address local challenges,” Banda said. “The project will directly engage students in community statistics while providing valuable experiences for their future. Additionally, local partners will benefit from the statistical reports and information provided by the students.” 

Melissa Walsh, toxicology course 

Walsh’s project, “A Problem‐Based Service-Learning Curriculum for a Hybrid Toxicology Course,” was awarded $5,000 in funding. Its goal is to develop a problem-based case study format, which will also include service learning and original research components, to be delivered in a hybrid modality for a large enrollment toxicology course. 

Courses with service-learning components have been shown to improve students’ ability to apply knowledge in a real-world context, leading to enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills, Walsh noted in the project abstract. They can also give students a greater sense of personal growth and connection to their communities, as well as improving leadership and teamwork skills. Service learning has also been shown to benefit underrepresented groups and first-generation college students by improving retention and graduation rates. 

“When service learning is also combined with problem-based learning (PBSL), meaning students solve real world problems facing their own communities, the impact is even more dramatic,” Walsh said. “This is particularly true with underrepresented groups, as participation in a PBSL course has been shown to leave them feeling better prepared to enter the workforce.” 

In service-learning courses, students go out into the community. Many Department of Biology courses have large class sizes, making this difficult, and in addition many students lack means of transportation to off-campus sites. Remote or “e-service” learning has grown in popularity in recent years as a major component of online courses. The COVID-19 pandemic and the move from in-person to online courses has created a need for the development of new ways to engage students, such as e-service learning. 

“The PBSL structure also lends itself well to conducting original research projects,” Walsh said. “Undergraduate research has been shown to improve student skills (teamwork, communication, writing, critical thinking) as well as increase student retention in the major and the likelihood of attending graduate school. Undergraduate research experiences are particularly significant in terms of persistence and engagement with students from underrepresented groups.” 

Walsh noted that since the large number of students in the Department of Biology precludes a traditional laboratory research experience for all, offering research opportunities in a course setting would allow the department to provide this valuable experience to more students. 

“Problem-based learning has been shown to improve problem-solving ability, teamwork, self-directed learning, and intrinsic motivation,” Walsh said. 

This is the first year the UT System Office of Academic Affairs has offered the grant program.