Our study deals with promoting scientific literacy in advanced undergraduate and graduate students through reading research papers, in the framework of establishing hybrid courses in higher education. We have shown in our study the potential of hybrid courses in promoting student-centered approach and active learning, in face-to-face lectures as well as in online instruction.

Moreover, our findings stressed the potential of studying a series of hybrid courses based on reading scientific articles aimed at promoting scientific literacy.

Scientific literacy is a key set of skills that students at all levels must acquire (Bybee, 1997; Murcia, 2009; Norris and Phillips, 2003). To make it concrete and valuable, our study examined fostering three scientific literacy skills: question posing, identifying article structure, and experiment design skills; and the total average score composed of all three scientific literacy skills, through two specially-developed biomedical engineering hybrid courses. Analyzing the pre-questionnaires' average scores revealed that even engineering students in an advanced course lack scientific literacy in general and have difficulties with scientific articles. To remedy this, we introduced on-line activities, open forum as an integral part of the course, in which we have focused on analyzing the articles' key issues as part of the forum discussions and as a longitudinal contribution to the final score of the course.

Did the activities integrated in the hybrid courses improve students' question posing skill?

The total average scores for students' question posing skill for all three groups in the post questionnaires were the highest. Our explanation is that in both courses, students' assignments included the question posing skill after reading scientific articles. Practicing the question posing skill, improved this skill. The From Cell to Tissue course included the interactive dialogues in the online asynchronous forum, which were based on peer-tutor students' questions followed by students' answers. Students in the Tissue Engineering course practiced the question posing skill by posing their own inquiry question as part of a research inquiry project.

The additional qualitative findings of this study were concerned with students' scientific literacy as reflected in analyzing their discourse in the asynchronous forum of the course. We have analyzed the question the peer-tutors raised each week, as well as the accompanied answers by the peers. Those findings were aimed at validating the findings concerning students' progression in their scientific literacy by using similar criteria, which were identified in the questionnaires. The questions and answers of these students also shed light on patterns in this progression, as were reflected in the forum threads.

We identified that the peer-tutor students' questions were at a basic level at the beginning of the threads, namely at a low level of complexity, as well as in a strong linkage to the text in the research article, presenting reading comprehension. However, the next derived questions from the original questions were at a higher level of scientific literacy. Students' question posing capability may serve as an evaluation tool for assessing the extent to which students understand and analyze scientific articles (Colleague and Author, 2009; Yarden, 2009). Students' gain was positive in all the peer-tutors' question posing categories individually – the thinking level, the question content level, and the complexity level – as well as in the total average question posing score. Our findings indicate that online discussions enabled collaborative learning, which accomplished knowledge construction and higher levels of analyzing and comprehension of the scientific research articles, as it was also shown by Garrison and Kanuka, (2004). Accordingly, these findings stress previous findings, that involving students in the formulation of research questions and data analysis strategies results in better understanding of empirical data and development of analysis strategies (O'Neill and Polman 2004). 

 

Did the activities integrated in the hybrid courses improve students' identifying article structure skill?

When comparing the starting points and gains for each of the identifying canonical article structure skill by analyzing the questionnaires, we can conclude that the post average scores of all the three research groups were higher than the pre-average scores in this skill. This indicates that reading scientific articles acquaints students with scientific literacy aspects, such as the language, structure, and process of scientific communication, and with the continuity of the scientific research process. Similar findings about students' improvement after reading scientific articles and exposing them to the scientific structure were reported by others (Baram-Tsabari and Yarden, 2005; Yarden, 2009; Yarden, Brill, and Falk, 2001; Colleagues and Author, 2012). We also found that students who studied in both courses improved their average scores significantly more than students who learned only in the course Tissue Engineering (effect of group). This finding indicates that students who studied in both courses improve their identifying canonical article structure skill because they carried out assignments that were based on reading scientific articles over two semesters rather than one.    

Did the activities integrated in the hybrid courses improve students' experiment design skill?

Students improved their scores in experiment design skill in all three research groups but no significant effect of time was found between the pre- and post-average scores. When answering the questionnaires, students were asked to suggest a follow-up experiment to the experiment described in the scientific article.  To accomplish the assignment, students were required to identify a new problem based on the experiment described in the text, and then to propose at least one new dependent or independent variable. One of the stages in an experimental design is the design of the experiment. The experimental design process is used by those people who can be considered experts, and it is a higher order cognitive activity (Koretsky, Amatroe, Barnes and Kimura, 2008). This indicates that the experiment design skill investigated in our study is a multi-stage higher order activity, and is therefore considered a scientific literacy skill that is difficult to attain (NRC, 2012, Padilla, 1990). We assume that students need more practice and time to significantly improve this skill. These results are in line with those of Coil, Wenderoth, and Cunningham (2010), who found that undergraduate biology students who practiced experiment design significantly improved at this skill.

However, the results show that, including in both courses, students' activities such as suggesting and writing an inquiry project, reading, understanding, analyzing and posing questions on the experiments in the scientific articles forum improved students' experiment design skill.

Summary and Conclusions

Our findings indicate that when students learned in one course, it promoted their scientific literacy into functional scientific literacy (Shamos, 1995), which is characterized by the ability to converse, read and write coherently in a nontechnical but meaningful context, as reflected in the forum discourse. Taking the two hybrid courses in sequence yielded the best results in post-average scores for each of the three skills examined: students’ question posing, identifying article structure, and experiment design skills. Those findings point to the need for the ongoing practice of this set of key skills, in order to promote the "true" higher level of scientific literacy, reflected in the ability to use those scientific ways of thinking (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990; Shamos, 1995).

One of the main limitations of our research is the fact that it was carried out among an advanced population of students, undergraduate and graduate students, majoring in biomedical engineering. Moreover, this population of students is not large. Therefore, we recommend repeating this research design in alternate populations of students in higher education, in larger-sized research populations. Taking these limitations into consideration, we believe our study is unique since it focused on question posing following reading and interpreting scientific research articles, specifically at the higher education level. We believe that the fundamental sense of science literacy is the ability to read and write science texts, most important at tertiary education (Norris and Phillips 2003). 

More specifically, students’ question posing skills have been examined in different settings and using a variety of criteria (Author and Colleague, 1999, Marbach-Ad and Sokolove, 2000). However, studies at the higher education level are rare and none of them used the idea of moving from a functional scientific literacy point of view, as characterized by the ability to converse, read, and write coherently to a "true" scientific literacy, characterized by the ability to use those scientific ways of thinking (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990; Shamos, 1995). Additional strength of this paper stems from the analysis of data gathered from both research tools – questionnaires (a quantitative analysis) and forum discussions (a qualitative analysis). We can clearly say that reading scientific articles can assist in understanding the rationale of a research plan, as well as developing the ability to critically assess the conclusions of scientific research, as Yarden, Brill and Falk (2001) have shown at the high school level using adapted primary literature.

This study can also contribute to practicing scientific literacy in higher education, most especially while majoring in sciences programs, where there is a need to give much more attention to students’ conceptual understanding (Tobias, 1990). Finally, we can conclude from our study that hybrid courses are activated by the variety of educational technologies and visualizations they combine (see Figure 3). 

Figure 3: Practicing scientific literacy skills in higher education via hybrid courses involving visualizations

These features of hybrid courses enable us to promote the students' scientific literacy and were based on the design principle of students learning from others. The technological features of the biomedical courses enabled students' asynchronous forum discussions between the students, based on peer-tutors' questions in the course From Cell to Tissue. While in the F2F classroom in the course Tissue Engineering, students worked in teams of three or four students. Each team wrote a research proposal and then prepared a scientific poster based on four scientific research articles.  

Research Contributions

The theoretical contribution of this study is the expansion of the body of knowledge of scientific literacy in science and engineering higher education, with particular focus on combining peer-tutor instruction in online Q&A forums. Our findings show that both the students' thinking skills and the complexity level of the questions posed by the peer-tutors increased over time, as did the quality of the peers' feedback. These findings indicate that reading scientific articles, followed by forum discussions or research poster presentations, improve students' higher order thinking skills, specifically those of question posing, identifying the canonical research article structure, and suggesting subsequent experiment design. The students' learning outcomes also underscore the potential of hybrid course formats to strengthen the face-to-face meetings via online discussions. The design principle of students learning from others served as the basis for these discussions, which turned out to be a significant source of data, as well as a basis for writing students' research proposals. The conclusions of this study can contribute to effective design and assessment of hybrid courses in science and engineering education for the promotion of students' scientific literacy. Finally yet importantly, we need to validate the detailed assessment criteria for evaluating and improving similar online learning activities, which eventually may serve lecturers in higher education to refine their online course assignments.