UniServe€Science News: Newsletter of the Science Software Clearinghouse Vol. 3, March 1996

Broader skill requirements of science graduates

Ray Sleet and Peter Logan

The title of this project was `Enhancing the broader skill requirements of science graduates'. The aims of the project were to enhance students' critical thinking skills, to foster their abilities to work co-operatively with their peers and to assist in the development of their communication skills.

About 60 critical thinking tasks in chemistry and physics have been developed which are designed to foster the critical thinking abilities identified by Ennis (1991). Unlike typical paper and pencil problems in textbooks, the critical thinking tasks developed in this project have missing data; some of the tasks contain irrelevant data and in many of the problems, part of the problem has an open goal in the sense that there is not a unique answer to that part of the task. Other critical thinking tasks are creativity exercises which have wholly open goals. In the tasks which are creativity exercises, students are given some information and they are asked to deduce or calculate as much additional information as they can. Some of the critical thinking tasks have been developed from information and/or ideas obtained from critical incident interviews with scientists in private and government organisations. In fact most of the tasks relate to applications of chemistry and physics in everyday life. For example, there are tasks about the production of analgesic tablets; the analysis of calcium tablets for the prevention of osteoporosis; the design of a solar water heater; hairsprays; hydrocarbon fuels and the use of radionuclides in nuclear medicine.

Most of the tasks have been trialed with first year university students who have attempted them in groups. Some of the tasks are appropriate to be attempted by groups during a 3-hour laboratory session instead of experimental work. The longer or more demanding tasks are suitable as assignments to be attempted by groups outside scheduled class times. Issues relating to the structure and maintenance of a well-functioning co-operative group have been investigated by Heller et al. (1992) and Heller and Hollabaugh (1992). They investigated the teaching of physics problem-solving through co-operative grouping. Several recommendations from their research have been adopted in our project. For example, in accordance with their work, in our project, with few exceptions, there were three students in each group. Each member in a group was assigned a specific role for each task and, following the recommendations of Heller and Hollabaugh (1992), the roles chosen were the manager, the sceptic and the checker/recorder. We have prepared a comprehensive student hand-out which contains advice about solving the critical thinking tasks in a co-operative group. There is advice in the hand-out to enhance the working relationships within a group and to foster the dispositions of a good critical thinker.

Ray Sleet & Peter Logan
R.Sleet@uts.edu.au, peter@phys.uts.edu.au

This project was funded in 1995 by a CAUT grant to Ray Sleet (Chemistry), Paul Hager (Education) and Peter Logan (Physics) at the University of Technology, Sydney. Malcolm Hooper (Chemistry Department, University of Sydney) was also a major contributor to the project.


Ennis, RH (1991) Critical thinking: a streamlined conception. Teaching Philosophy 14: 5 - 24.
Heller, P, Keith, R and Anderson, S (1992) . Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 1: Group versus individual problem solving. Am J Physics 60 (7):627-636.
Heller, P and Hollabaugh, M (1992) Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups. Am J Physics, 60(7): 637-644.

The critical thinking tasks will be published in a book entitled Broader Skill Requirements of Science Graduates. It will also contain ideas on designing tasks to foster particular critical thinking abilities and will have information about co-operative groups and the development of communication skills. Copies of the book will be sent to university libraries in Australia and to UniServe*Science before July 1996.