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Training Scientists How to be Better Teachers

Although academic careers are often the aim of graduate students' training, few programs really prepare their trainees for the main business of colleges: teaching. A handful of national programs are playing roles in changing this by training postdocs, new professors, or graduate students to become better faculty.

One program, Project NeXT (New Experiences in Teaching), was launched in 1994 with sponsorship by the Mathematics Association of America (MAA) and the Exxon Education Foundation. Each year, Project NeXT helps about 60 new Ph.D.s who have landed academic positions focus on undergraduate teaching and learning. The NeXT program builds a teaching focused peer-network each year of participants at institutions around the country. NeXT participants communicate by e-mail and in person at three national meetings during the 1-year fellowship. Their network provides a mixture of support, career advice, day-to-day teaching tips, and ideas about course development and presenting mathematics in new ways.

"At meetings, we talk about not just math but also things like how to balance your professional and personal life," says James Baglama, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock who is part of both the national program and a smaller scale NeXT program offered in his region's MAA section.

Another program, the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Postdoctoral Fellowships in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Education [ PFSMETE (say "puff-smete")] enables recent Ph.D.s from technical fields to do research in education. These fellowships train the fellow in education as a discipline or allows fellows to focus on developing teaching or learning tools. Though the skills learned through PFSMETE fellowships can be different from those in the basic sciences, the mechanics of training are similar: Fellows identify significant research questions or technology projects within education and work under an appropriate mentor in education or technology development. Ecologist and current PFSMETE fellow Eric Klopfer was already moving into education when he got the award: He had taken a job teaching in the public schools. Now he is using his ecological interests and background in modeling to develop software and working in educational technology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

PFSMETE offers 2-year fellowships to applicants who have recently earned a Ph.D. in a scientific area. Recent fellows have come from a range of fields including molecular biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, earth sciences, and others. Up to 20 fellowships are available each year, depending on NSF's budget.

A third program, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Scholar/Fellow Awards, recognize and support outstanding research by faculty in chemistry at primarily undergraduate institutions. The award also allows the scholar to recruit a fellow, a recent Ph.D., to collaborate in research and teach in the scholar's department. The program is designed to give a postdoctoral fellow both a significant research opportunity and experience with faculty responsibilities. The fellowships last 1 year, extendable to 2 years if the fellow makes good progress. Sixty-one colleges have supported more than 160 scholars and fellows, combined, since the program was established in 1987. The scholars are the focus of the Dreyfus grants, and scholars recruit their own fellows. The list of scholars recruiting is posted on the foundation's Web site after late October each year.

"The Dreyfus fellowship can offer you an opportunity to teach, work with undergraduates, and get significant research experience," says Harmony Voorhies, a Dreyfus Fellow at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. That experience can be key when looking for a job. Voorhies is about to move to a tenure track position at Mesa State College, a primarily undergraduate institution in Colorado.

Another program focuses on graduate students. Schools across the country participate in the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program, which since 1993 has focused specifically on preparing graduate students for the roles they will assume as faculty members. "The program grew out of the national conversation on improving undergraduate education," says Ric Weibl, who administers the program. "Significant national focus has been on improving the professoriate."

PFF, a joint effort of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Council of Graduate Schools, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, brings together the producers of new professors--the research universities, and the "consumers" of most new professors--hiring institutions. The exchange has been productive on both sides: "The [teaching] partner faculty have fun working with the doctoral students," Weibl says, "and the graduate faculty learn what goes on, for example, in a community college." The students, meanwhile, get significant exposure to the inner workings of academe, which are often hidden to those being trained. "PFF is not just about teaching," Weibl says. "It's about preparing faculty in all their roles. Faculty work is more than teaching." The program currently supports varied programs at 15 clusters, each made up of a research university and a handful of other higher education institutions. All of the PFF clusters share a focus on improving the culture of academic training and the preparation of newly trained Ph.D.s.

Understanding the roles of faculty helps students understand how both teaching and research universities work, as well. Scott Heppell, who participated in the program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, is aiming for a job at a research university. "A lot of research institution graduate school programs prepare you to do everything but teach," he says. "If you've finished with that education without teaching, you may be in trouble." PFF gave Heppell opportunities beyond a teaching assistantship to find out what it's like to create a course, to prepare lectures, and to respond to student needs. "It gave me a better idea of the time and effort that goes into teaching an hour-long course," he says. "It was a great way to step into it instead of the standard 'trial by fire' experienced by people hired into a new faculty job."

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