With a new $1.5 million donation, the University of Wisconsin’s REACH project hopes to improve efforts to bring interactive learning to entry level lectures.

The donation from Ricky and Mara Sandler will bolster efforts by the REACH project to enhance learning among students in large STEM lectures through active learning.

Steven Cramer, vice-provost and co-lead of the Education Innovation Initiative, said the REACH project hopes to increase student retention in large STEM classes by helping students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. The hope is to create a learning environment where students are engaged by both their professors and their peers.

In the classroom, UW chemistry professor Ned Sibert said active learning means professors will design their courses to allow for student engagement even in classes with more than 300 students. In his courses next semester students will come to class and discuss topics in groups, watching demonstrations and using conventional clicker questions to increase engagement.

“It’s been endless meetings all year long with people from all across campus coming together to design a chemistry course from a student-centered perspective,” Sibert said.

Hopefully, Sibert said, all aspects of courses like Chemistry 104 will be designed so discussion, lecture and even lab sections complement each other.

Other universities have already moved toward active learning, Cramer said, and many grade schools now use it as well. He said feedback from UW students and research on the subject supports the move toward active learning.

Courses will have a variety of options to incorporate active learning in their curriculums such as flipped classrooms, where homework and lecture are reversed, Cramer said. The biggest challenge facing faculty will be the size of the classes, Sibert said.

“When you read about active learning, it’s mostly in smaller classrooms,” Sibert said. “We’re still stuck in these horrible classrooms. There are students outside of the reach of TA’s and faculty. It’s a challenge.”

The new funding will give the REACH project more resources to teach faculty how to best design courses with active learning in mind, Sibert said.

While the REACH project is focusing on STEM classes, Cramer said the ultimate goal is to foster active learning in all large-scale entry level classes and increase retention rates across the board.