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September 5, 2005
Volume 83, Number 36
pp. 80-82


Graduate students have more options to practice teaching before hitting the job market



GRADUATES Chemistry Ph.D.s (from left) Bradley, Laurie Tyler, Thomas Castonguay, and Moore were the first participants in the postdoctoral faculty fellowship program at Boston University.

During her fourth year of graduate school in the University of New Orleans' department of chemistry, Amy L. Bradley felt bogged down by research. "I really questioned whether I wanted to finish my Ph.D.," she says. All that changed when she was assigned to mentor an undergraduate in her lab.

Bradley thrived in her new role. The opportunity to mentor renewed her enthusiasm, so that she "popped out of bed and couldn't wait to get to the lab." She also reassessed her goal of working in industry--instead, a career in teaching beckoned.

Bradley, who is now beginning the second year of a tenure-track faculty position at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., attributes her success to the then-new Postdoctoral Faculty Fellows program at Boston University. The program is a "protected" faculty experience, where postdocs can teach under the supervision of faculty mentors.

For Bradley and other chemistry graduate students who find their calling in teaching, the typical graduate teaching assistantship offers meager preparation for an academic career focused on teaching.

In graduate school, the laserlike focus on research discourages students from developing their teaching skills, says Morton Z. Hoffman, professor emeritus of chemistry at Boston University and chair of the American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Education. "Unless a graduate student has a strong desire to follow a teaching path and gain teaching experience in graduate school, it's unlikely that he or she will."

Only "a few unusual departments" do much in the way of teacher preparation beyond the usual teaching assistantship responsibilities, Hoffman adds.

"In general, we still expect our students to teach the way they were taught, which is what we ourselves tend to do" he says. "Education research in the teaching and learning of chemistry has disclosed a great deal of what should be done differently, but changes in practice lag behind by decades."

THE PAST DECADE, however, has seen a growing number of graduate programs provide options for students to engage in more comprehensive teaching experiences and study the techniques of teaching in preparation for a faculty-level teaching job.

The Boston University postdoctoral program is just one model for providing better training grounds for future college chemistry instructors. Education centers, such as Northwestern University's Searle Center for Teaching Excellence, offer teaching certificates to graduate students who complete a course of academic study and teaching practice. Other schools, like the University of New Hampshire, have launched Preparing Future Faculty initiatives that include optional teaching degrees for Ph.D. students.

In addition to producing better teachers, these programs can make the difference between job offers and rejection for graduate students, especially at small liberal arts schools like Wilkes University. Bradley, who recently served on a hiring committee at Wilkes, says faculty candidates without prior teaching experience are rejected outright.

Siobhan P. Milde, now an instructor of general chemistry laboratories at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., also testifies to the value of teacher training. She completed a college teaching program while earning her chemistry doctorate at the University of New Hampshire.

"I feel I have an advantage over Ph.D.s who haven't done a similar program," Milde says. "I have more to offer the students now."

The teaching portfolio Milde developed at New Hampshire was instrumental in her job search, she adds. "I used this document for every place I applied with great success."

Teaching portfolios, which chronicle teaching experience and development, have gained popularity throughout academia in the past 10 years, says Neeraja K. Aravamudan, coordinator of the Graduate Teaching Certification Program at Northwestern's Searle Center. "There's more recognition that we need to better prepare graduate students for teaching, that it's really not enough to prepare our graduate students for research, particularly since they're not all going to end up at research universities."

The Searle Center's two-year teaching certificate program draws a mix of graduate students from different departments. The program requires students to design a course on their own, attend seminars on teaching issues, and then team-teach an interdisciplinary freshman seminar.

The program is a unique opportunity to collaborate with nonscience graduate students. Amanda S. Hakemian, a fourth-year graduate student of chemistry, will team-teach a freshman seminar with a psychology doctoral student this fall. The responsibility for a twice-weekly seminar with 15 students can be "a little overwhelming," she says, but it is also a valuable experience. Hakemian plans to teach chemistry at a small college after graduation.

Hakemian is one of two chemistry graduate students to participate in the Searle Center teaching certificate program since it began two years ago. Korin E. Wheeler, who completed the program this spring, sought out the additional teaching experience after realizing that she enjoyed interacting with undergraduates in the chemistry lab as a teaching assistant. She says the program has stoked her interest in teaching chemistry. "I've gotten a lot more vocal about teaching, spoken with a lot more people about teaching."

For her teaching project, Wheeler redesigned several lab units for a chemistry course for nonmajors. She introduced a soap-making experiment that she says is popular with students "because they get to take the product home with them.

"It's not just throwing them into a lab and saying, 'This is what chemists do,' " Wheeler adds. "The message is, 'This is the chemistry of your everyday life.' "

The time commitment of the teaching certificate program discourages many graduate students; so far, only about half of the entrants complete the Searle Center's certificate requirements. "I don't think I would recommend the program for everyone," Hakemian says. "You have to really want to do it, because it can be hard to fit in with the other things you have going on."

For graduate students who focus solely on research during their Ph.D. studies, a teaching postdoc is the last opportunity to hone their teaching skills before they apply for faculty positions.

The Boston University Postdoctoral Faculty Fellows program, started in 2002, is unusual in that it is hosted by a Ph.D.-granting chemistry department. Teaching postdocs are more common at small liberal arts institutions.

Because of financial limitations, the department created the postdoctoral teaching fellowships at the expense of two graduate assistantships for each fellowship. However, Katinka I. Csigi, proposal development administrator and a member of the program committee, says the program has seen the benefits of having more experienced and qualified instructors leading undergraduate chemistry classes. "The student evaluations of the courses led by the postdoctoral faculty fellows are very high," she says. Csigi adds that the department would like to expand the program to include several more fellows and also spread the program to other departments.

The evaluations by the postdoctoral fellows themselves are very positive. Bradley, part of the first class of three postdocs, says the program made her a strong faculty candidate. "I had multiple on-site interviews and job offers. All the fellows got that kind of reception."

Bradley's classmate Alison B. Moore now teaches at Belmont University, a small college in Nashville, Tenn. Moore says the Boston University program helped her decide that she wanted to teach in a small-school environment, where faculty teach more introductory courses and fewer specialized courses. "There's something about teaching first-year students that I really like," she says.

During her first year as a fellow, Moore would occasionally substitute for her faculty adviser, lecturing to an audience of more than 200 first-year chemistry undergraduates. "The hardest part was getting up in front of all the students--it's a huge step with that many students," she says. Because of that experience, she says she "really hit the ground running at Belmont. The normal teaching jitters weren't there."

Because their responsibilities are divided between teaching and research, the Boston University Postdoctoral Faculty Fellows also get a crash course in time management.

Bradley and Moore say they devoted about 80% of their time to teaching and running lab sections during the academic term. They had to learn to squeeze in research whenever possible.

"It turns out that life is really like that when you're trying to do research at a small university," Moore says.

Bradley managed to publish one paper during her fellowship, but it was not easy. "It's my perception that if you want to teach at a Ph.D.-granting department, you'd better not do this kind of postdoc," she says. However, Bradley adds, the program "prepares you perfectly" for faculty positions at smaller undergraduate institutions.

"It's really not enough to prepare our graduate students for research, particularly since they're not all going to end up at research universities."

ANOTHER KIND of education-focused program is taking shape at the University of New Hampshire's department of chemistry. The Ph.D. Chemistry Education Option, officially recognized by the graduate school last year, is an unusual blend of scholarship in chemistry, cognitive science, and education theory.

Christopher F. Bauer, professor of chemistry education at New Hampshire, developed the program when his own research interests moved into science education. Unlike education departments, which address science education broadly, the Chemistry Education Option focuses on issues that are unique to chemistry education and learning, he says.

Students taking this Ph.D. option must complete a traditional master's degree in chemistry, along with coursework in education, cognitive psychology, and qualitative and quantitative research methods. Students must pass cumulative exams that cover both chemistry and education, but their Ph.D. research addresses only chemistry education.

Although the program is still in its infancy, Bauer says programs in other chemistry departments already produce graduates with backgrounds in chemistry education.

"Some of those [graduates] are going into faculty positions where they are expected to do research," he says. "Some are going to four-year colleges to take over general chemistry courses or develop outreach programs or do curriculum R&D. And some people are going into traditional teaching positions at community colleges.

"The last five years, particularly, we've seen an increased demand for students with this type of knowledge and preparation," Bauer adds. "There are more departments looking for expertise in chemical education research, and there are more programs geared to produce students with these abilities."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society


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