Texas A&M University and Vanderbilt University share the distinction of being two of the six research institutions invited, in 2006, to be part of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Robert Webb, professor, Physics and Astronomy, helped establish CIRTL at Texas A&M and Thomas Harris, M.D., Ph.D. did the same at Vanderbilt. Harris holds another distinction: now retired after 48 years at Vanderbilt, he’s a professor emeritus in biomedical engineering, medicine and chemical engineering. . . and a proud member of the fightin’ Texas Aggie class of ’58 (BS) and ’62 (MS).
Both universities embraced CIRTL because, as Harris points out, “The CIRTL Network aimed at improving the ability of new Ph.D. grads to be better faculty members by introducing them to basic principles of learning science and instructional design. In other words, by focusing the expertise of a number of tier 1 research universities on this issue, joint programs were developed that improved preparation of new faculty to undertake the challenge of being great teachers as well as great researchers.”
Why? Because U.S. research universities produce the majority of undergraduate faculty members of tomorrow and most of them have no training as teachers. These same faculty members are then charged with meeting the ever-increasing state and national demand for a diverse population of college graduates with expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
CIRTL promotes the development of a national faculty in STEM committed to implementing and advancing effective teaching practices for diverse student audiences as part of their professional careers.
“A successful faculty member of the future will know about best practices in teaching (after CIRTL training),” states Webb. “When Ph.D. candidates understand effective teaching they can help their undergraduate students learn better, faster and cheaper!”
A STEM graduate student at Texas A&M who hopes to become a faculty member at the university level gets trained through the student-run Graduate Teaching Academy (GTA) and has the opportunity to conduct a CIRTL Teaching-as-Research (TAR) project in collaboration with a faculty mentor in their discipline. In this program, the GTA TAR Fellows design, implement, assess and report on innovative teaching methods developed in a STEM classroom using the teaching-as-research process. Because they are researchers, Webb explains, they approach teaching the same way they would any research project.
“What that means is these STEM grad students and post-docs get the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned. For example, they might design a lesson plan incorporating best practices, develop a hypothesis about the learning outcomes they hope to achieve and then go into a classroom and teach. They collect and analyze data and assess what has been learned. Then they evaluate their findings and reflect on how they will use this to improve their teaching.
“That’s reflective teaching.” says Webb. “Like any other researcher, not everything they try will work. But STEM educators experiment and then reflect; they don’t remain static in their teaching. Reflection is a perfect example of our university’s commitment to lifelong learning.”
After graduating with a degree in computer science from Cal Poly (California Polytechnic State University) and working for many years in the software industry, Ralph Crosby decided on a career change. He applied to graduate school at Texas A&M.
“I knew I wanted to be in an academic environment with my focus on teaching,” Crosby says. “As an undergraduate, I hadn’t had the opportunity to be a TA (teaching assistant) so I went through the GTA Fellows program; in fact, I co-led it in my second year.
“My adviser had redesigned the computer science for non-majors course and we wanted to assess whether it was meeting the needs of the student population. As a TAR Fellow, I did a series of surveys, focus groups and subsequent analysis of the students to try to understand how effective (or not) the course was. Basically, I used the outcome to reflect and further tune the course and expect to publish my research this year.
“In other words,” Crosby adds, “this wasn’t just a project I did and then dropped. The seeds of teaching as research continue to grow; they become part of you, part of what learning for a lifetime is all about.”
As Crosby explains, “The traditional graduate program is tightly focused on research, not teaching. Programs like TAMU-CIRTL and the GTA help to bridge that gap and allow Texas A&M to produce individuals better prepared for all aspects of the academic world.”
“CIRTL is hoping to infiltrate the STEM fields so that informed teaching elevates what undergrads learn,” states Webb. “The original network of six universities has expanded to 25 and there are others in the 70-100 national research institutions eager to join. In addition, CIRTL graduates can remain part of the network and ‘infiltrate’ the institutions where they teach.”
One such “infiltrator” is Shraddha Sangelkar ‘10, assistant professor, mechanical engineering, at Penn State Erie and part of CIRTL in 2012-2013.
“Ph.D. students have no formal training to teach, so the TAMU-CIRTL program got me acquainted with best practices in teaching,” says Sangelkar. “I was an instructor of senior design in mechanical engineering; for my TAR Fellow proposal, I approached teaching it the way I would any other research project. I tried different teaching techniques and assessed the results. I didn’t necessarily get the results I wanted, but I learned what I could do better. And I was awarded an Excellence in Graduate Teaching Assistance Award for 2012-13, so I guess it worked.”
Sangelkar continues: “My CIRTL experience provides me with the opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to the Behrend College at Penn State Erie where I currently teach mechanical engineering. Other faculty members have their tried-and-true methods and are somewhat resistant to change, but they are beginning to be influenced by the best practices I learned as a TAR Fellow at Texas A&M.”
Webb points out that CIRTL was begun under Texas A&M’s Office of Graduate and Professional Studies led by Dr. Karen Butler-Purry, associate provost, so that Ph.D. students would be better prepared to be academic leaders in their disciplines.
“Adding teaching skills to their research expertise gives our graduate students a leg up when competing for faculty positions,” Webb states. “More importantly, however, is that they become agents for change in STEM teaching and learning.”
The NSF has renewed funding for TAMU-CIRTL for the next three years.