ctl logo

Dr. David Helfand, PhD

Professor of Astronomy and Chair of Frontiers of Science

Dr. David Helfand teaches courses in the Department of Astronomy and Frontiers of Science, a course that integrates science into Columbia’s undergraduate Core Curriculum. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Helfand taught online, hybrid, and in-person courses, with an ongoing commitment to making science accessible to all students, and built on the innovations he has developed through multiple Provost Teaching and Learning grants (including Spring 2018 Hybrid Learning award for “Simulating the Universe: Stimulating Active Learning”; Spring 2021 and 2022 Massive Open Online Course award for “Frontiers of Science: Four-Course MOOC Series” with Ivana Nikolic Hughes). Dr. Helfand met the moment by rethinking how to support active and engaged learning online, and seized the opportunity to offer a block course to students. The block model of teaching and learning is a method that he pioneered as President of Quest University Canada, a small liberal arts college in which students take one course at a time for a month. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Helfand did in the course, what lessons and experiences he is carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia.

Engage students in their learning

It was challenging to teach online and in a hybrid modality given that my pedagogical approach centers on active and hands-on learning. When we moved to remote teaching, I adapted by integrating more technology into my practices. I acquired an iPad and began to use that as a board to write on during online office hours. I found that online office hours increased student access and engagement. I have always written on classroom blackboards, as this paces the presentation of course content and provides time for students to take notes. However, while teaching online, I relied on lecture slides. I spent hundreds of hours creating slides and now there is a temptation for me to use the slides that I created during the pandemic. It ends up being a trap of flashing through slides instead of writing on the board, although I do now have some asynchronous content and recorded lectures that I am able to share with students to support their learning. Despite many cameras being off in my online classes, I tried to engage students by using breakout rooms and leveraging online simulations that I had developed pre-pandemic through a Provost Teaching and Learning grant, and introducing discussions of pressing topics such as climate change and MRNA vaccines to help students see the relevance of the science they were learning. Team-teaching “Foundations of Science” for General Studies students online in Fall 2020 with Statia Luszcz-Cook helped, as we were able to integrate a lot of activities and support each other while teaching online. We were not able to replicate our field trips around campus from previous iterations of the course such as visits to Riverside Park so that students could learn to view the space from a scientist’s perspective. When we taught a hybrid version of the course, we attempted to do hands-on activities such as having students build clay models of the solar system and take them out on campus, or doing power of ten notation by laying out M&Ms, pairing remote students with in-person students, but found that the students online were passively watching the in-person students. 

Transform teaching and learning with block courses

In the summer of 2020, seventy-five first year students needed to take Frontiers of Science and I proposed that we teach in a block system. This involves intense, single-subject teaching and learning experiences completed in a few weeks. Over three and a half weeks, for three to four hours per day, students engage deeply with the course content in small class settings. We offered three sections, two were online and my section was taught in-person with twenty-four students. The students loved the block course! We were able to leverage the recorded Frontiers of Science lectures and pause to take student questions. The class sessions were structured around short lecture segments interspersed with discussion. Students engaged in hands-on activities with their peers. We noted the same exam distribution when compared to the semester-long version of the course, and the students were unanimous in their preference for the one-course-at-a-time approach compared with semester teaching.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Design classrooms for active learning.

In-person teaching and learning requires learning spaces that are flexible. Classroom space is critically important to the teaching and learning that takes place within it. In order to promote interaction and student learning, classrooms should have movable chairs and tables that instructors and students can reconfigure for different uses and to engage meaningfully in activities and with each other. 

Consider the block system for learning gains.

There is great interest globally for the block system of teaching. I have had faculty from Victoria University in Melbourne Australia observe block teaching at Quest and find inspiration in this model. Over a 15-month period they transformed their first-year curriculum and developed the VU Block Model. The challenge is that one needs a cohort of students to take one course at a time and for instructors to offer these courses that are hard work, as the three hour, daily sessions are interactive and not lecture-based. Students engage in collaborative activities. This would benefit all learners but especially those underrepresented in STEM. It is a great way to introduce students to science.