CNS, Engineering Hold Two-Day Workshop for Teaching Fellows

Elizabeth Jakob
Elizabeth Jakob

This month the College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences held their third annual two-day, spring training workshop for 26 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers accepted into the Teaching Fellows program.

The program gives those who plan careers that involve teaching a meaningful, semester-long, paid teaching experience with support from experienced mentors. Each fellow designs a first-year seminar course to be taught once weekly to sections of 19 incoming students. The fellow is then instructor of record for this course in the fall semester.

The program was developed in response to the first-year seminar program instituted by Provost Katherine S. Newman in 2015. These small seminars allow new undergraduates to connect with their peers and with instructors, and have been shown to increase student success and retention.

Program leaders say Engineering and CNS were well positioned to launch these seminars because the campus is already engaged in preparing STEM graduate students and postdocs to teach through its membership in the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), a network of R1 institutions, that is, doctoral universities with highest research activities, across North America focused on improving teaching preparation.

The leaders of CIRTL @ UMass, associate dean of the graduate school Elizabeth Jakob, senior associate dean of the College of Engineering Tilman Wolf and outgoing graduate dean John McCarthy, saw an opportunity for a win-win outcome: Undergraduates benefit by working with enthusiastic instructors who feel supported and mentored, and graduate students and postdocs who have been instructors of record for their own classes have a “leg up” in the faculty job market. Training is organized by Jakob and Wolf, with associate dean of engineering Russell Tessier, postdoc Sarah Pociask of CIRTL and the Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development.

Jakob says, “I remember very clearly how daunting it was to transition into a faculty position. I had lots of experience as a TA in graduate school following a plan laid out by someone else, but teaching my first class on my own was a completely different challenge. In the Teaching Fellows program, we try to give the fellows all the tools they need to design their own course and the chance to try it out, but on a very manageable scale.”

In this month’s workshop, different topics were covered by Pociask, Johanna Yunker from the Graduate School’s Office of Professional Development, Elizabeth Connor and Randy Phillis from biology and Alex Deschamps from information technology. Jakob says the May workshop introduces such topics as how to design an engaging seminar on a subject related to each fellow’s research.

In this workshop and another in August before the fall semester starts, fellows learn how to develop a syllabus, design effective classroom activities and graded assignments, use the learning system Moodle, employ effective class management principles, handle conflict in the classroom, lead discussions and manage their own time so that teaching doesn’t overwhelm them.

The program offers optional additional help sessions throughout the summer for fellows who want feedback on their plans. During the fall teaching semester, fellows attend weekly one-hour meetings with their peers and a faculty or postdoctoral mentor to share successes and troubleshoot problems.

Jakob says the shared theme for CNS seminars is an introduction to “How to think like a scientist,” in which fellows are encouraged to introduce students to evaluating scientific evidence. Past seminar titles have included “Biology of Sex,” “The Buzz About Bees,” “Making Sense of Global Warming,” “Organic Food and Health,” “Eat, Prey and Love in the Plant Kingdom” and “What Am I Eating: The Evolution of the Human Diet.”

Testimonials from fellows who have completed the program say it provides a good balance of freedom and support, and offers participants insight on how to put a teaching portfolio together. For others, it helped to clarify that teaching was the right career path for them. Several teaching fellows from previous years have already stepped into tenure-track positions at other institutions, Jakob reports.