Chemistry professors practice evidence-based active learning strategies and other tools.
by Robin Donovan for the American Chemical Society
It’s a conundrum faced by many new faculty in higher education: Despite many years of study, new professors often feel underprepared for the demands of teaching. The American Chemical Society’s (ACS) New Faculty Workshop prepares educators to teach in a way that looks a bit different than it has in generations past. Lecture-dominated methods are out, replaced by a focus on a range of evidence-based techniques designed to speed learning through student participation. Workshop sessions also cover mentoring, time management, and balancing teaching and research responsibilities, with a lesser focus on securing grants and funding opportunities. This year’s gathering was held in person, a first since 2019.
The workshop launched in 2012 as a way for faculty at research-driven organizations to sharpen their teaching skills. Today, workshop organizers like Jason Gavenonis, Ph.D., ACS’ program manager for faculty development, welcome a broader subset of new professors.
“In 2016, when I attended, that was the first year they had faculty from primarily undergraduate institutions,” says Gavenonis, who now directs the workshop for ACS. “Subsequently, there have been faculty from community colleges and a whole diverse array of institutions attending.”
To apply for the New Faculty Workshop, professors must submit a letter of reference from a department head or another campus leader who can discuss their teaching assignments, outstanding qualifications, and any novel teaching approaches the college or university is already implementing. An active research lab is not a requirement. The same department head can recommend multiple candidates, and the ACS encourages new faculty from the same institution to apply and attend the workshop together. A $700 registration fee covers meals, lodging, and workshop materials, with a limited number of scholarships available.
Sierra Williams, Ph.D., just finished her first year of teaching as an assistant professor of chemistry at Claremont McKenna College in California. She attended this year’s workshop to network, prepare for teaching responsibilities, and learn more about grant opportunities.
“It’s made me more reflective in trying to plan or trying to be more intentional about planning my lectures, she says. “In what ways can I engage students who have different learning styles that will appeal to a broader group of students as opposed to just a subset of students?” She says she started thinking about what the most important takeaways were from each classroom session when designing her courses.
Peg Harbol, Ph.D., is a professor of chemistry and natural sciences division chair who is also a frequent facilitator for the New Faculty Workshop. She enjoys sharing active learning strategies, which are a helpful supplement—or even a replacement—for lectures.
“If the instructor is lecturing, it doesn't really matter if the students are there or not, right?” she says. “The professor will deliver this lesson whether the students are there or not. For me, the measure is, ‘Did the students have to be there? And that's what makes it active, is that the students are engaged physically, mentally.”
One common technique is “think-pair-share” in which students reflect on new material, then work with a partner to discuss a concept or solve a problem together before sharing their findings with the larger classroom. Another is using clickers to solicit feedback from an entire group of students, often through an electronic poll or multiple-choice questions.
Though the techniques may sound simple, their impacts are far-reaching, according to Rory Waterman, Ph.D., a chemistry professor at the University of Vermont, and one of the initial organizers of the New Faculty Workshop. He points to a meta-analysis of active learning strategies used across the sciences. “Their conclusion was that it helps everyone. The biggest effect is that it actually brings up the bottom of the curve, not the top. It's disproportionately helpful to folks who have been minoritized in science,” he says.
New professors are tasked with not only the firehose of information that comes with any new job, but building community among students who’ve been socially fractured by pandemic restrictions and life stressors. Using what she learned at the workshop, Williams asked students to solve problems with their neighbors, shuffling seating so students became acquainted with new people, and organized small group activities in which clusters of students came to her office to work together to walk Williams through their solution to a problem.
Due to pandemic isolation, “it was like everyone is a freshman again or first year again, starting off trying to acclimate to the campus and making new friends,” Williams says. “Especially this past year, building community in the classroom is really important.”
Still, Gavenonis says that with many teaching innovations during the pandemic, there are bound to be improvements in newly reformed classrooms. “There are so many opportunities to see what has worked because it had to, and what we could bring back in,” he says. “Maybe it won't be the same now, but maybe it’ll be better.”
Attendees found the workshop could have work-life benefits, too. Williams pointed to the challenge of time management, both inside and outside academia. “I had to learn to balance between not only prep for the classroom, but being available for my students, and then making time to think about my research, get the ball rolling on ordering and setting up the lab, and then also making sure I’m making time for myself,” she says. She now blocks off regular time each week for tasks like reviewing literature, alongside other duties.
Welcoming new faculty
The workshop has an attendance cap, but all new professors are welcome to apply, according to Gavenonis. New faculty members from two- or four-year institutions should be in their first three years of faculty appointments, though limited slots may be available for more senior faculty attendees. Applicants must be current faculty members or soon-to-start new faculty who have a signed contract with a college or university and have a strong interest in teaching and mentorship. (A separate, annual Postdoc to Faculty workshop is available for postdoctoral fellows who hope to secure future faculty positions. Applications for the 2023 session will open in January. In addition, ACS publishes a free pamphlet, “Tips for Securing a Faculty Position,” which is available online.)
The New Faculty Workshop is a collaboration between the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative, Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement, and ACS. More than 630 new faculty have attended in the past decade since the program began. As the program progresses, leaders like Gavenonis are exploring more specialized workshops, too.
“The question that I'm kind of focused on right now is, ‘Does this one workshop best serve all these groups, or does it make more sense to have more focused content for different constituencies?’” Gavenonis says. Overall, he says the workshop can boost the early professorship years for a wide range of faculty members, even those who may not see themselves primarily as educators. “Teaching isn’t just something that happens in the classroom. It happens in the laboratory, too.”
“It’s made me more reflective in trying to plan or trying to be more intentional about planning my lectures." - Sierra Williams, Ph.D.