By Anuj Pradhan, PhD
Too often, scientists who choose an academic route receive minimal training in the art and science of teaching. While a few may have assisted, lectured, or managed independent courses during doctoral training, this practice is not the norm. A lack of teaching experience is all the more unfortunate given that a popular career trajectory for a doctoral researcher is to join the ranks of academia. There is an expectation to conduct high quality research at the same time as teach classrooms full of undergraduates and graduate students.
To address this issue, OITE offers a 9-week Scientists Teaching Science (STS) course. The goal of this course is to provide postdocs with in-depth training in science education and pedagogy. All of the learning materials are supplemented by peer-reviewed papers, real-life examples and anecdotes, and statistics from the education science community.
The instructor, Ms. Barbara Houtz, is a highly acclaimed and decorated science educator who infuses the course with her substantial experience, vitality, and enthusiasm. She is a key reason why the course is in such high demand. This year, Barbara taught two sections on campus and three sections remotely at Rocky Mountain Labs, Frederick, and Baltimore.
Barbara teaches the course with a dynamic approach and encourages both individual participation as well as team learning in an environment that actively prepares the attendee for a career in academia. Participants are exposed to the popular distance-learning format and electronic collaboration via mainstream on-line Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Canvas by Instructure.
The course offers an in-depth examination of the fundamental and theoretical framework of teaching with an emphasis on preparation for and exposure to real world classroom scenarios. Each participant is expected to create, in collaboration with an assigned group, an educational philosophy statement. As the weeks progress, this statement is then tweaked with the inclusion of new material and active feedback from the instructor and other group members.
A select set of critical lessons are covered during the course, including inquiry-based science, teaching methods and aids, learning domains and styles, and Bloom's Taxonomy for learning objectives. Using this information, participants explore how to establish course objectives, generate a syllabus, and create student assessments.
Barbara also addresses the importance of cultural awareness and diversity in the classroom, providing alternative lecturing techniques for various situations. The course strives to emphasize cultural diversity and helps adjust expectations about classroom scenarios and the role of the teacher as an educator and mentor.
As an international visiting fellow with little experience in lecturing—let alone creating a course from scratch—the STS course was an eye opener for me. The fundamentals of pedagogy, learning theory, and teaching techniques are undoubtedly informative and helpful, but the most unique benefits that I have extracted from this course are the insights into the educational culture in US higher education and the help with educational philosophy and curriculum development, all in a nurturing and immersive environment. This course effectively helps a postdoc kick-start an academic career with a strong science education foundation and calibrated expectations.
Editor's note: Fellows must take the 2-hour Scientists Teaching Science workshop in the same academic year as a perquisite for the Scientists Teaching Science 9-week course. For more information, please visit https://www.training.nih.gov/sts_main_page. Note, as well, that for the past six years NICHD has offered Becoming an Effective Scientist, an 11-week course directed and taught by fellows in our institute, to NICHD and NIH postbacs—a great teaching experience. We also hold one in-depth teaching workshop each year, watch for announcements.