ISE 870 – Teaching College Science (course)

ISE 870 is a course taught by the oh so knowledgeable Dr. Joyce Parker.  It is designed to provide postgraduate students with a bit of a crash-course in both learning and teaching.  This is a necessary course for the completion of my Certificate of College Teaching, yet I was excited to take the course as I have a large issue with the amount of teaching training most college professors have to start.

Dr. Parker, to start, has a massive pile of teaching experience.  It is now my understanding that she has taught for many years, researched both teaching and learning mechanisms, and now appears to focus on helping others become effective teachers.  I think this is a great thing for any university to have, and someone like Dr. Parker is a necessary component of it.  (To note, Joyce will be reading through this blog to make sure I’m passable in terms of the course, but it has no effect on the components of this post – I promise.)  PhD candidates are very good at extracting information from periodicals and books, but having someone with real experience is always more beneficial.  A quizzical mind can only grow when there are the resources to support it.

Anyways, the course opens with a description of the syllabus and it ties into a discussion of what makes up a good syllabus vs. a passable one.  The most interesting bit of this was that there was a focus on the “course objectives” which is the “What will the students be able to do once they complete the course?” Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but as an undergrad I didn’t pay attention to these sections at all, I just went straight to the grading policy, exam dates, and course schedule.  But,  I am not all students and I need to make materials accessible to every type of students.  I’ve decided that these objectives are much more helpful in terms of the course schedule – what will you be able to do with the materials presented within a single class period or section of the course.

The next few weeks opened up into piles of reading from old dudes about the philosophy of learning and cognition.  The readings were exhaustively bland and lofty but during class period Dr. Parker helped us distill the essence of it all.  We talked through Bloom’s Taxonomy Ladder (see the image to the right from the linked site for a quick synopsis) and other ways of understanding how people actually learn, access, and apply materials.   Bloom’s ladder was the most applicable of all these, as I have had similar thoughts throughout my teaching experiences.  Many times students are able to define a term or understand a concept but the application of these ideas to a similar problem is lacking.  As you go up the ladder the ideas become more abstract, more theoretical, and much more valuable.  Proceeding up allows you to not only understand the exact problem/idea, but the problem itself becomes a foundation and thus can provide the framework by which you can understand new concepts.  While I recommend every professor to understand these concepts – I’d say stick to the cliff-notes as the primary articles can be a bit of a bore.

Other course requirements for ISE 870 are the creation of several “interactive learning” lectures – which I enjoy a lot.  These sway away from the typical “I will throw information at you all class and it’s your job to understand it later.”  Interactive lectures rely on the interaction between the professor and the student along with a lot of group work between students. This allows the instructor to provide foundation concepts and then force students to ‘climb the ladder’ and reach those higher states of understanding.  As students work through the materials in class they can bounce ideas off of the professor and their classmates and it leads to a much more entertaining and valuable understanding of the materials presented.  I am still (quite) worried about the application of this teaching method in majors courses as you simply cannot cover as much material.  But, I know that a solid understanding of main concepts leads to easier assimilation of new and more specific information.  All in all, I’m definitely going to play with this when (if?) I get a teaching position that permits me such freedom.

Finally, the last few weeks roll around and working with a partner (which was a learning experience in and of itself) I was to create a detailed course syllabus, a 30-minute interactive lecture, and a lesson plan for a 50 minute course.  My partner ended up being someone who I had worked with previously (in Dr. Alison Cupples‘ lab) who is a member of the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) department.  I was interested in creating an Environmental Microbiology course, and she had a similar idea.  What we ended up creating was a course in microbiology designed for these CEE students.  The interactive lecture went well, the lesson plan wasn’t an issue, yet the syllabus came together only after many long discussions.

We wanted to create a course where the microbiology was a focus but we didn’t want the students to get slogged down with the details.  I mean, if I was a CEE student forced to take a micro class I would be sitting there saying “yeah yeah, when am I going to use this?”  But, microbial processes in the environment affect everything!  This is what we decided to convey to the students, that the microbiology (that I would supply) is directly applicable to the Civil Engineering aspects (that my partner would supply).  Weekly lectures would begin with either the CE problem followed by the micro aspect, or vice versa.  This way students can get a CE framework by which to assess the value and necessity of the microbes in the process.  I believe that it all turned out nicely and working through this with someone with ulterior motives (she wanted to include so many CEE materials) was amazing. We found ourselves fighting over what should be cut from each of our materials to leave room for the other.  I can only imagine this happening during the creation of a real course.

At the end of this class I feel that I am much more prepared to create my own course and (hopefully) survive my first semester.  I do know that this is a naive assumption, that nothing will work as I planned and everything will be a relative disaster.  But, I hope that the disaster will be in my own mind and that my first students will fare better now than they would have without me undertaking such a teaching bootcamp.


Closing question:  Any professors out there who took a similar class?  Did it help? Also, how disastrous was your first teaching semester?

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