Welcoming the Next Generation of College Science Teachers: Connecting the Present to the Future

Article excerpt

Like many of us, I returned from the SCST/NSTA national convention in Dallas with a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm for the activities that we all consider so important--teaching science and conducting research into more effective teaching. What made this year's convention different from prior ones, at least for me, was that more graduate students attended and presented. It reminded me of my first professional meeting, at the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). I was a new PhD student and my advisor announced that I was going.

I remember the excitement of listening to presentations, learning about the latest theory and methodologies, meeting professors whose work I had read, and exchanging ideas with faculty and other graduate students in both formal and social environments. I benefited greatly from that and subsequent meetings--I felt a part of the scientific research community, learned about the latest research findings and techniques, received guidance from more experienced researchers, presented my own ideas for validation and criticism, and commiserated with other graduate students about successes, failures, struggles, and challenges. I enjoyed a great deal of support on my journey to becoming a skilled scientific researcher through my participation in ABS.

In contrast, it was not until after I earned my doctorate, completed my postdoctorate degree, spent several years as a visiting assistant professor, and was halfway to tenure at my present institution that I attended a meeting focused on college science teaching. And this was despite the fact that I devoted most of my time to teaching, the activity I enjoyed most. Once again, I found colleagues with my interests and became, albeit more slowly, a member of that community and enjoyed similar benefits. But why did it take me so long to get involved with a society focused on teaching?

One answer lies in graduate school. The focus there is on mastery of the discipline and conducting research. During that time, some graduate students get involved in teaching as teaching assistants, where they typically teach laboratories with limited instruction or guidance about teaching. I would venture that the typical instruction they receive is of a narrowly focused, practical nature--how to perform lab exercises, keep grades, administer quizzes, and so forth. There is little discussion of theories related to teaching and learning or of the research that should inform the practice.

Graduate students have little interaction with skilled instructors who model best practices and get little encouragement to read relevant literature and discuss teaching in a scholarly fashion with peers. So, whereas many graduate students are beginning the activity that will be a substantial portion of their careers and perhaps the real reason they went to graduate school (i.e., to become a college science teacher), their development in this area is neglected and even possibly discouraged (Shannon, Twale, and Moore 1998; Nyquist et al. 1999), despite the possibility that their teaching may even improve their research (French and Russell 2001).

Individual efforts to change this dynamic exist on every campus. I know many colleagues who engage in practices, offer seminars, and conduct in-depth TA training programs that promote better teaching (e.g., Rushin et al. 1997). More extensive, sustained efforts are encouraged by the Preparing Future Faculty Program (available online at www.preparing-faculty.org), initiated by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 1993 with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Atlantic Philanthropies. The program has produced a guide (Pruitt-Logan, Gaff, and Jentoft 2002) that provides a blueprint and is a call to action for changing the way we prepare future faculty.

More recently, the NSF established the NSF Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education Program (available online at www. …