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Teacher Training for Those Who Can

Hopkins launches a pilot program for postdocs who want to learn to teach


May 2011--When he completes his postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins, Christopher Berndsen hopes to obtain a faculty position that gives him a chance to teach as well as do research. But when Berndsen began contemplating his job prospects last year, he was stumped by one thing. How does one teach?

Berndsen has a Ph.D. in biomolecular chemistry, has published eight papers in topflight scientific journals and knows the detailed biochemistry of the enzyme Ubc13, the subject of his current research. Teaching, however, he says, presents unique challenges.

Fortunately postdocs like Berndsen now have some assistance. The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions Professional Development and Career Office (PDCO), in collaboration with the College of Notre Dame, in Baltimore, recently launched an Instructional Assistants (IA) program, designed to help train postdocs in the craft of teaching. Berndsen is one of the first IAs.

The program grew out of requests from postdocs, says PDO Director Donna Vogel. Some, she says, seek faculty positions at liberal arts colleges, where teaching can constitute at least half of a faculty member’s time. However, even those seeking positions at research universities will inevitably have to teach something. Yet many job-seeking postdocs find themselves in a quandary. Schools require job applicants to submit a statement describing their teaching philosophy. But most have had little, if any, teaching experience. “They’re looking at careers where they are expected to teach, but nobody tells them how,” says Vogel.

What does it take to be a good teacher? 
For years, some in academia assumed that having a Ph.D. in science was sufficient—if you knew your content area, you could go into a lecture hall and impart that knowledge to the next generation.

It didn’t help that teaching had a certain stigma. In the hierarchy of academic science, research reigned supreme, while jobs requiring greater teaching loads ranked several notches lower. Many teachers at all levels have heard (and winced at) the refrain, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

But old attitudes may be changing. First, says Vogel, “there has been an upsurge in interest among postdocs and graduate students in getting teaching experience.” (Her office received 24 applications for the three IA slots available in the first phase of the program.)

At the same time, the way science is being taught in many college classrooms is changing as well. Some science educators are calling for a transformation from a lecture-based learning environment to an approach that espouses “active learning” and “learner-centered classrooms,” in which students learn by analyzing problems, discovering solutions and applying information under the guidance of a teacher who challenges them. Those processes replicate how real science is conducted and, in theory, will afford students a deeper understanding of the discipline.

But that type of teaching requires knowledge of pedagogical methods. 

“It’s not just teaching as dispensing information, but teaching as interaction,” says Janice Bonner, professor of biological sciences at Notre Dame, who is mentoring the postdocs participating in the IA program.

Each instructional assistant presents two lessons to Introductory Biology students at Notre Dame during supplementary learning sessions. The IAs first meet with Bonner to plan the lessons and receive her coaching. A veteran teacher who began her career as an elementary school teacher before earning a Ph.D. in science education, Bonner says one tip she offers all new teachers is to ask good questions in the classroom and to prepare them ahead of time. A “good” question, by her definition, is one without an obvious answer, which makes students think.

Bonner also observes and videotapes the postdocs while they present the lessons, and later offers a critique of their teaching methods. “We’ve had some pretty frank discussions of what they’ve done well and not so well,” she says.

For Berndsen, the experience has been illuminating. “On video, you notice traits you do unconsciously, which may be distracting to students,” says Berndsen. “For example, I realize I talk with my hands too often.”

He also credits Bonner with helping him improve his classroom management skills, specifically learning how to work one-on-one with those who need extra help while keeping the larger group of students engaged. He anticipates that teaching a whole course will present other challenges, such as gauging how to balance breadth with depth of different subtopics. As a postdoc, he is used to boring deeply into highly specialized areas of biology. That approach won’t work in Bio 101. 

Although teaching isn’t easy, says Berndsen, he enjoys its rewards, especially the “aha” moments when students finally grasp a concept. “I’d love to do more,” he says.

Hopkins may offer more opportunities for postdocs like Berndsen to do just that. Vogel and her colleagues hope to expand the IA program to include more postdocs and more local colleges. A handful of other institutions offer grants, fellowships and workshops in teacher development for postdocs. The National Science Foundation sponsors the largest such program, the Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching (FIRST IV). Postdocs who are accepted attend workshops on teaching practices and design and teach an introductory biology class at their home institution, under the mentorship of veteran science teachers. One hundred postdocs have completed the two-year training program, and 200 more are currently participating.

According to Diane Ebert-May, who co-directs FIRST IV and is a professor of plant biology at Michigan State University, “postdocs are the change agents of the revolution that aims to reform science education.”

-- Melissa Hendricks

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