We have found that dividing the class of 20 students in groups of four brings agility to the group logistics and minimizes “defocusing” socialization. These are the teams of peer teachers. Each is responsible in carrying its own weight in the education of the team. They select their own “management” structure, as well as their agenda. The course itself starts with a month of lectures by the instructors and by visitors from other germane departments. The students organize visits to research labs on campus where research on crystalline materials is being performed, and invite researchers in the field to lecture the class. Each meeting period involves discussion of homework problems, where the groups, informally, present their findings. After this initial month, each team selects a topic among a wide gamut of possibilities and clears, with the instructors, the particular focus it wishes to develop further. The selected themes tend to group in science, technology, as well the general “lore” of crystals. So the themes range from the growth of crystals in reduced gravity, through the economic aspects of synthetic diamonds, to the folklore of crystals in healing. The particular selection of a theme is not as important as the way they research the topic, develop it and present it. The teams first present a survey of their topic to the class. We evaluate the presentation in terms of intellectual content and delivery. The students not only receive our feedback but also that of their peers. They have the chance to incorporate the comments in a second report, three weeks after the first when they are supposed to focus more on the initial theme and select a part for a more in-depth study. Final oral and written reports are due at the end of the semester.
Through the semester the classroom atmosphere has been that of inquiry, critical thinking, accepting of all points of view and the pursuit of diverse perspectives. The students seem to be able to take with them these attitudes and maintain them in their team meetings and discussions.
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A.M. O’Donnell “Theory into practice: Promoting thinking through peer learning” Gale Group http://www.findingarticle.com/cf_dls/mONQM/1_41/90190482/print.jhtml (2002).
Y. Heins “What we learned, 1997 workshop” http://www.cs.wpi.edu/~peersc/whatlearned97.html (1997).
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Bokreta, M.K., Santiago-Avilés, J.J. Crystals (A Freshman Seminar): An Exercise on Cooperative and Peer Learning. MRS Online Proceedings Library 809, 12 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1557/PROC-809-BB1.2