Assessment of a Constructivist-Motivated Mentoring Program to Enhance the Teaching Skills of Atmospheric Science Graduate Students

By Drossman, Howard; Benedict, Jim et al. | Journal of College Science Teaching, November-December 2011 | Go to article overview

Assessment of a Constructivist-Motivated Mentoring Program to Enhance the Teaching Skills of Atmospheric Science Graduate Students


Drossman, Howard, Benedict, Jim, McGrath-Spangler, Erica, Van Roekel, Luke, Wells, Kelley, Journal of College Science Teaching


[A candidate for the PhD degree] must be in touch with the most recent and most successful movements in undergraduate education, of which he [or she] now officially learns little or nothing. How should he [or she] learn about these movements? Not, in my opinion, by doing practice teaching upon the helpless undergraduate. Rather he [or she] should learn about them through seeing experiments carried on in undergraduate work by the members of the department in which he [or she] is studying.

--Robert Maynard Hutchins (1930)

Although Hutchins's call for graduate students to participate in pedagogical research has seemingly been long ignored, we find it compelling. Numerous colleges and universities have found creative ways to address the challenge of preparing graduate students for the professoriate, such as those participating in the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) initiative (Adams, 2002), but surprisingly few allow graduate students to innovate under the direction of experienced faculty mentors who demonstrate passion and skill in pedagogical experimentation. In this report, we evaluate Hutchins's recommendation by describing and assessing the benefits of a mentoring program in which graduate students from a university research department team-teach and participate in pedagogical research with a professor in a liberal arts environmental science program.

Graduate student surveys have indicated that even though interest in college-level teaching careers is quite high, and "the vast majority of new PhDs who take positions in Academe do so in teaching institutions rather than research universities" (Thompson, Nelson, and Naremore, 2009, p. 2), graduate students often receive insufficient support for developing teaching skills from their departments and thesis advisors (Golde & Dore, 2001). Clearly, the poor preparation of graduate students for teaching is not due to a lack of programs. The PFF initiative included 295 colleges and universities in 2002, potentially impacting more than 200,000 doctoral students across multiple disciplines from colleges and universities across the United States (PFF, 2009).

Several exemplary programs to enhance science graduate students' teaching abilities have been described in recent years. The Graduate Science Teaching Enhancement Program used a mentoring relationship between science education graduate students who were experienced K-12 teachers and graduate students acting as teaching assistants in science classes (McComas & Cox, 1999). Baumgartner (2007) described a class that effectively allowed biology graduate students to learn about teaching. Druger (1997) and Kurdziel & Libarkin (2003) provided numerous examples of teaching assistant training classes for biology and Earth science graduate students, respectively. Among the alternatives for training graduate students to teach, mentoring relationships seem to have the best success (Boyle & Boice, 1998; McComas & Cox, 1999). The PFF initiative suggests that "a particularly underutilized source of expertise is faculty members in other geographically accessible institutions, particularly those who are recognized as successful teachers and who use innovative and engaging approaches to teaching and learning" (Adams, 2002, p. 5).

Mentoring program

The graduate fellows teaching mentorship program is a collaboration between the Colorado College Environmental Program and Colorado State University's Atmospheric Science Department designed as part of the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP), a Science and Technology Center funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In addition to the schools' geographical proximity, the two institutions complement each other's strengths. Colorado College (CC), a nationally ranked residential liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, enrolls ~2,000 undergraduates and provides classes with a maximum of 25 students that often focus on experiential pedagogy through a unique academic calendar called the Block Plan. …

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