I am an engineer, and I was never trained to teach. This fact seems to be very common for many STEM careers. We get a Ph.D. in engineering, and it is assumed that we are competent to execute well as teachers. Sure- “if she can calculate the cost of running a power plant when changing process constraints, then she can certainly teach process design.” Um, not necessarily.
STEM= Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. You can also add Art and it will be STEAM.
I started my teaching career during the last year of my Ph.D. because it was my turn to train the new students coming into our lab. I had expertise in TGA, SEM, XRD, and all those other instruments that require clever acronyms, because it is unbearable to mention their name every time. It seemed appropriate for my advisor to assign me with the quest because, after all, I was also approachable. I remember that before my training session, I verified that all instrumentation protocols were detailed and that I had enough samples to run. You know, a sample for me to instruct and a couple for the students to follow during training. With the help of many impromptu troubleshooting during the training, it was obvious to me that the experience for the participants was holistic. Just as our engineering professors would say: “why active learning, when troubleshooting is the epitome for engineers”. I was so proud of myself, but did my teaching session work? I will never know. I realize now that at that point of my career my teaching style was instructor-centered.
After finishing my Ph.D. in chemical engineering, I crossed over discipline boundaries and taught classes for a master program in Food Science & Technology. (A one-year appointment while struggling to get a job as a new Ph.D.) I have to say that my most meaningful interactions with the students occurred during the food processing laboratory. (Food Processing is like Chemical Engineering Processing, but you can eat your products.) During the activities in lab I learned the most and the student did too. I started reading about active learning and educational research. I found many active learning strategies, but there were too many for me to handle it all. I was a first-time teacher with the pressure of covering the syllabus content and the book. Once again, the words from my professors’ on my mind: “The more chapters, the more you will learn.” As a new teacher, I had no room for implementation of those new teaching techniques, but I started my journey with simple handouts and some short discussions. Based on the exams and student evaluations most of my students succeeded in the class, but my question was: what made my students learn? I realize now that I was converting into a learner-centered instructor.
After a year, I moved on and began teaching chemistry at a community college. I became an educator the moment I stood up in the chemistry classroom (Room K-028, I still remember). I decided that if I was going to be a teacher for the rest of my life, I better be the best one at it. Teaching to community college students was one of the most rewarding experiences because most of them need a good teacher to help them thrive. I wanted to change their lives the way other teachers changed mine.
“Changing disciplines during my career has forced me to understand that teaching is a process, and it requires the active participation of both the instructor and the learner.”
Every semester was an opportunity for me to learn something new. Dedicated instructors surrounded me. I was encouraged to try new things and share my experiences with them. I got trained in online instructional design and flipped classroom. I became a Quality Matters reviewer to learn and improve my online approaches. I learned that teaching, retention, and success is a struggle across many disciplines. Every semester, I tried something new in one of my lectures. After much trial-and-error, I concluded that I liked flipping some of the lectures to give space for more active learning. Another big question came to my mind: How can I measure the impact of my teaching strategies on my student performance and study skills? I deep dived into teaching, learning styles, and assessment methods. It took me five years to load and comprehend the educational jargon.
Changing disciplines during my career has forced me to understand that teaching is a process, and it requires the active participation of both the instructor and the learner. In my new job as an engineering faculty, I will apply many lessons into my classroom. The core of my education research journey will be on methods and assessment. The Universe spoke to me: “Sindia, you have found your teaching philosophy: student centered teaching using blended instruction methods.”
Wow, it sounds so beautiful, right?! The Universe never told me that this was the tip of the iceberg!
Subscribe, comment, or return back to read more about my journey into engineering education.
- Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide, by Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent (Jossey-Bass, 2016).
- NCSU : Learner-Centered Teaching
- Video: Active Learning with Dr. Richard Felder
- Access to ASEE Paper Data Base