Friday, July 12, 2013

Research faculty doing teaching the right way (#ResearchCorp Cottrell Scholars)

Every year that I've been fortunate enough to be invited, I've made a pilgrimage to Tucson, AZ, in mid July. There, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) hosts an annual conference of their current Cottrell Scholars (CSs), a smattering of CS alumni and several brilliant guests. All of the CSs were selected in a stiff competition which reviewed both our research and our education proposals with nearly equal weight. The odds of success are low enough that many outstanding scientists lose out. Those of us who win a CS award often feel the kind of gratitude that one feels winning a lottery. Not surprisingly, all of my CS colleagues are doing great science and I would be privileged to hear about their latest results. None of them do so during the CS conference. Instead, we spend two days talking about what we do to educate our students, the general public and everyone in between. The invited participants and speakers who are not CSs aren't left out of this either as they are similarly asked to stay focused on this mission.

It may seem odd for a group of faculty at research-active universities to be so focused on education. After all, seemingly, our prime directive is to publish or perish. Not to mention the pressure we are under to secure external research grants from which our universities derive the necessary overhead to make their budgets. But education is clearly a central part of a university's mission, and our jobs in particular. It is not a static process because the ways that humans consume knowledge changes with time. This is compounded by the broad heterogeneity of our students across many factors. As such, we need to continuously reinvent the way we teach our students every year. Of course, we could choose to keep business as usual. The result would simply be reductions in our teaching effectiveness and the types of students that we impact. And this type of failure is not an option for CSs. At the RCSA conference, we discuss ways in which the latest education literature and our own practices inform us to advance the educational experiences of our students. (By students, I mean those in an out of the classroom and those in the myriad of extended settings in which we may reach individuals not otherwise enrolled in our courses.) We don't just talk about active learning, we practice it. The dialogue is so interactive that outside observers are often pleasantly surprised, flabbergasted or both. Regardless we all learn something new, we become re-energized in our efforts to advance education, and above all we have fun!

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