Training Scientists How to be Better Teachers: Doing It Yourself

Formal programs can be invaluable in opening doors to new experiences. But how can you better prepare yourself for teaching without going into a program? Here are some suggestions.

Finding a First Opportunity to Teach

Volunteer to speak in the community--high school career days, events sponsored by environmental groups, or acting as a docent in a science museum can all give you a chance to lecture.

Read your local want ads. Sometimes some crisis occurs--anything from a personal problem that requires a professor to take a leave of absence to someone quitting without notice. Colleges are left in a bind and need to hire someone local. If you present yourself well, you may find yourself given a chance. Community colleges and the evening divisions of universities often hire lecturers locally and may be willing to let graduate students teach. Work your research strengths into a course or into guest lectures in professors' courses.

Science and the Chronicle of Higher Education both often have advertisements for short-term teaching at undergraduate institutions. These colleges generally want you to have some experience, but if you have taught a little, some of these positions give you a chance to broaden your portfolio and work more closely with faculty. Often, these positions are advertised as 1-year jobs, but they can have extendable contracts.

Improving Your Style

If your department won't let you teach, make friends with students in other departments who do. At least you can get a copy of the material they get on teaching and sit in on their class now and then to see what goes on. "The best thing you can do is peer review," suggests John Keegan, a Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) fellow at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "Have a lab buddy come in and critique you [when you teach as a TA]. Try to get an idea of your method and your style." If you don't TA, you can ask faculty and friends in a journal club to critique your presentations with an eye toward improving your teaching style.

Research universities are teaching institutions, too. "Find someone in your area whose teaching style and skills you admire and approach them about working with them independent of what's offered through your department or your university," PFF participant Scott Heppell suggests. Working at the bench also provides opportunities for teaching: Graduate students and postdocs can work with younger students. "Even though I enjoy lecturing, I enjoy working with students one-on-one more," says Dreyfus Fellow Harmony Voorhies. "Anything that gives you that experience is worthwhile."

Getting Involved in Education Research

"If you're still a doctoral student, find faculty who are doing educational projects. . . . It's a matter of finding them, finding common ground, and getting them interested," recommends Postdoctoral Fellowships in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Education (PFSMETE) fellow Eric Klopfer, whose Ph.D. is in ecology. "Preferably get some of these people on your committee," agrees Janet Russell, a PFSMETE fellow at Ohio State University. "I would encourage people who are interested to reach out to the science educators on campus. Cross campus and talk to the science education people [in the college of education]," recommends Russell.

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