Article in Science describes CALS-based effort to teach science grad students how to teach

U.S. science and engineering students emerge from graduate school exquisitely trained to carry out research. Yet when it comes to the other major activity they’ll engage in as professors — teaching — they’re usually left to their own devices.

That’s now beginning to change, thanks to work at UW-Madison. In the Nov. 28 issue of Science, a team led by bacteriology professor Jo Handelsman describes its program of “scientific teaching,” in which graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are taught to foster scientific inquiry by their students, accommodate diverse learning styles, and rigorously evaluate their teaching efforts.

True to the approach, they’ve now assessed whether participants are indeed learning the program’s methods and principles, and the study indicates they’re getting results.

“We’ve shown in this paper that training graduate students in teaching is feasible and that it works,” says Handelsman, who leads UW-Madison’s scientific teaching initiative with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “It does have an impact on the way they think about teaching, their philosophy of teaching, and what they actually do in the classroom.”

While the findings may sound obvious to some, programs that prepare science graduate students for teaching are still relatively rare, says Handelsman, despite repeated calls by the National Research Council and others for better education training for future professors. What’s more, of the programs that do exist, none appear to have been studied as carefully as the UW-Madison initiative, known as the Teaching Fellows Program.

Filling a gaping hole in graduate education is thus one major benefit of well-tested programs like UW-Madison’s. But the biggest winners will be the future generations of undergraduates who take science courses, says the paper’s lead author Sarah Miller, who co-directs the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching with co-author, Christine Pfund.

“This is all about the classroom of tomorrow,” says Miller. “How do we make that classroom a place where every student who comes through the doors has a reason to be there, feels included and isn’t just learning facts that you can find using Google? It’s about thinking: How do we get our students to think?”

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