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Boot Camp For Professors

Workshop for starting chemistry faculty focuses on developing teaching skills

by Celia Henry Arnaud
September 3, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 36

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Feig (standing) leads a discussion after one of the “teachable tidbit” sessions.
This is a photo of Andrew Feig leading a discussion at the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative new faculty workshop, held Aug 8-10 at ACS headquarters.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Feig (standing) leads a discussion after one of the “teachable tidbit” sessions.

New assistant professors typically get their jobs on the strength of their research. But research is only part of their duties. For many of them, about half of their job involves teaching. The problem is that—apart from having been teaching assistants in graduate school—few beginning professors have any experience in front of a classroom.

The Cottrell Scholars Collaborative New Faculty Workshop aims to fill this gap, giving beginning professors the basic training they need to succeed in the classroom. The event, held in Washington, D.C., last month, introduced 38 beginning chemistry professors to teaching methods designed to equip them for success in this important part of their jobs. The program was modeled after a long-running series of similar workshops for new physics and astronomy professors.

The chemistry workshop was the idea of Andrew L. Feig, an associate professor at Wayne State University, and Rory Waterman, an associate professor at the University of Vermont.

One of Feig and Waterman’s goals is to introduce new professors to teaching methods that they may not have experienced as students but that have been supported by education studies.

“There’s a very substantial literature from the physics and chemical education communities that most of us have never seen,” Feig says. “The studies on student learning are very clear that there are traditional ways of doing things and there are better ways of doing things.”

Feig and Waterman hope that the workshop will be a catalyst for improving chemistry education by catching young professors before they develop a lecture-only style of teaching that will be hard to unlearn. They also hope that the active-learning methods will make the new professors’ jobs easier.

“We don’t want them to spend more time teaching. We want them to spend the same amount of time they would preparing lectures, just preparing different kinds of learning environments for students,” Feig says. “We’re not trying to make them into chemical education researchers; we’re trying to make them more effective in the classroom.”

The heart of the workshop was a series of five sessions in which each participant developed a “teachable tidbit.” They developed a plan for presenting one piece of content from one of their courses using methods other than conventional lecture, including a plan for assessing effectiveness. In the fifth session, participants presented the tidbit to their peers in a mock class.

The workshop didn’t focus just on teaching. In addition to the sessions on active-learning methods, it featured sessions on time management, student mentoring, and grant writing.

Participants found the experience worthwhile. Matthew F. Bush, entering his second year as a professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, plans “to try a range of techniques introduced at this workshop and evaluate what works well for my learning objectives and teaching style.” Megan C. Thielges, a new faculty member at Indiana University, Bloomington, notes that she is “better for teaching advice” and that she “particularly enjoyed the opportunity to get to know other starting faculty.”

Funding for the workshop was provided by Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) through its Cottrell Scholars Collaborative. Both Feig and Waterman are Cottrell Scholars, an award from RCSA that recognizes early-career faculty members committed to excellence in research and teaching. The Cottrell Scholars Collaborative is an organization started in 2011 to bring together all Cottrell Scholars since the inception of the program in 1994.

The organizing committee, which also included Lane A. Baker from Indiana University, Linda Columbus from the University of Virginia, and William S. Jenks from Iowa State University, advertised by contacting chemistry department chairs at research universities. They hoped to attract 25 participants, which they thought would be a manageable size. They ended up with 38 participants. Several universities sent more than one faculty member.

The initial RCSA grant provides funds for two years. After next year’s workshop, continuation of the program will depend on getting disciplinary buy-in and finding another source of funding, such as the National Science Foundation, which funds similar workshops for physics professors.

The organizers are collaborating with Marilyne Stains, a chemistry education researcher at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, to assess the both the short- and long-term effectiveness of the workshop. She plans to follow participants for up to five years and compare them with a control group who did not attend the workshops to determine whether the experience influenced their teaching style. Long-term success will involve a widespread shift from lecture-dominated teaching to student-centered learning and an acceptance of modern pedagogy, Waterman says, but such changes will take time. “If we can get people on board trying things and continuing the workshop beyond two years from now,” it will have been a success.


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