PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Andrew Velkey

What works: Observations from the field

Andrew Velkey

Drew Velkey is Associate Professor of Psychology at Christopher Newport University.

Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab—the environment in which you work with students—what impression would s/he leave with?

In the classroom, I use an interactive-style of instruction in order to promote active learning, even when I’m “lecturing”. Whenever possible, I use a seminar format where students share in the exploration of material and take on roles as group leader/facilitator or group participant based on the nature of the material. At the same time, didactic moments occur, and I shift into “lecture mode”. My students are empowered to call me out on this (e.g., “Dr. Velkey, you’re LECTURING again!”) and shift the nature of instruction back to a more active and participatory style if they so desire. Visitors would also be struck by the extent to which my pedagogy is “low-tech” (my nickname is “Dr. Chalk”). While I am certainly no Luddite, I find that the use of a variety of “high tech” approaches to instruction (e.g. Powerpoint, interactive video, etc.) place an extremely high burden on me in terms of preparation time, and overconstrain the extent to which I follow a lesson plan. This is most certainly a failure on my part…others can and do use technology quite effectively in the classroom (and I do as well in certain courses).

My laboratory is a different place. In addition to being a place for research, I carve out space for the students wherever I can. Students in my lab are encouraged to decorate the facility with their own selection of artwork, etc. I have a small room in one corner where a computer workstation is set up next to a mini-fridge where students can store drinks and snacks. My laboratory is much “higher tech” (computers, video monitors, digital video cameras, etc.) and students are expected to master the use of the variety of technologies in the lab. My interaction with students in my lab is quite different than in the classroom (which requires some adjustments for lab students who have previous or concurrent experience with me in the classroom). In order to move a student assistant up to the level of collaborator (or at least “para-collaborator”) as quickly as possible, I shift from teaching to “mentoring”. Students in my lab are instructed more as apprentices than as “students”; I find this to be an ideal learning situation in which the laboratory apprentice quickly takes on a much greater level of responsibility and ownership for their own learning---it is much more interactive, dynamic, and collaborative as we learn together about the phenomena of interest in the lab. As a result, I feel that my experience with students in my laboratory is much more organic---visitors to my lab would say that, as a place, it is much more “alive” than my classroom.

What brought you to an interest in “advancing the frontiers of education” and to connecting your research to that work?

My work with Sigma Xi brought me into my first contact with PKAL as it related to improving STEM education, especially introductory college-science courses. I was rather fortunate that I always was encouraged to pursue hands-on experiences in science throughout my education (K-12 and college), primarily through science fair and undergraduate bench work. While in graduate school, I realized that my experience with science was far from typical, and I became amazed out how well we actually retain students in the pipeline given the nature of the problems in science education, especially at the secondary and non-majors post-secondary levels. I worked with Sigma Xi on various activities on reforming undergraduate science education. My research connects to the work of “advancing the frontiers of education” by using my primary research interests in animal behavior as a vehicle to attract students to the research realm and as a means of teaching students about science and science-education issues as we perform the various activities in the lab. My research is so interdependent on undergraduate students at this point that I don’t think it would be possible for me to stop including them.

Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?

My primary crisis came about towards the end of my first academic appointment. Fresh off my Ph.D. defense, I joined a department where there was very little undergraduate research. Within a few weeks of my first semester as a faculty member, I had the first of my research teams assembled (even though I did not have a laboratory and wouldn’t have a dedicated laboratory for several years!). As the semesters progressed, I and my departmental colleagues increased the extent to which we encouraged our students to become involved in research. I had multiple research teams working on a variety of topics (most outside my domain of animal behavior--- we didn’t have an animal lab for several years). We took students to conferences, helped them prepare papers and poster for presentations at the meetings, and increased the number of majors completing empirical honors theses. It got to the point where I did not have the resources or the time to handle all of the students seeking research experiences…it was just too much. I knew it was time for me to leave when I reached my capacity; we needed to hire somebody else to share in the research load, and no such hires were on the horizon. New students approaching me for the first time were turned away; I was conflicted and knew it was time to move on. I will always cherish the friendships and leadership I experienced my first four years as a professor, and I believe that it was the best start I could have ever had for my academic career. Still, I am grateful that I was able to move on and join a diverse and dynamic department where all of my 15 colleagues have active research programs that involve undergraduate students. I can now focus on my primary research interests and work with those students who wish to work with me or on projects in my area of animal behavior.

What connections have been of most value in doing this?

My connections across disciplines have been tremendously valuable. While I can and do collaborate and consult with my departmental colleagues, my colleagues from other disciplines have been the most encouraging and insightful. This includes connections outside of science with colleagues in English, Philosophy, Theater, and even university administration. Their unique perspectives allow them to see solutions to problems that I perceive as unsolvable. At the same time, I am continuously fascinated as to the extent to which our activities and processes have amazing parallels across a variety of domains. This is why we are confident that we can pursue the enhancement of our research-rich learning environment to be accessible to students in all areas (not just the sciences) both within and across domains.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and teaching?

Honestly, if I knew the complete answer to this question, then my work as the LI team facilitator at my institution would be much easier---all I’d have to do is implement an agenda to make the necessary changes. I’m not sure about all of the requirements of the culture that need to be in place. I know about some of the logistical issues as they pertain to both resources (materials, money for students’ travel, space to conduct the research, etc.) and time (administrative support, work study support, teaching load, etc.). However, culture has to do with the shared attitudes, values, customs, and practices at the institution. This is much more comprehensive than just the roles people play in the community. However, I think I’ve made some insights over the past few years. First and foremost, the community must demonstrate a pronounced and inescapable respect of research at all levels of the institution across all disciplines (not just STEM). Both faculty research and student-faculty research must be held in high regard, irrespective of the department of the activity or the venue for the final product. If an undergraduate student presents her first research project at a regional undergraduate conference, then the institution should celebrate that accomplishment and recognize the value of the work by the faculty that made it possible just as much as a major publication or substantial award of extra-mural funding by an esteemed scientist. Undergraduate research is inherently risky and “less productive” according to typical disciplinary standards; it is unreasonable to expect faculty working with students on research to have the same record of accomplishment in the form of extramural funding or peer-reviewed publications in high-impact journals. Secondly, the community must be supportive, especially of either new faculty or faculty attempting to make the move to integrate their teaching and research with students for the first time. Risk-taking needs to be rewarded, and failure must be recognized not as a shortcoming or limitation, but as an important lesson from which much valuable information may be learned. Finally, all members of the community need to drop their disciplinary biases…physics is no better than chemistry, art is no better than music, the administration is no better than the faculty, and the faculty is no better than the students. All members of the community have unique talents and abilities, interests and passions, opportunities and limitations, and the community can only thrive once these differences are celebrated. When the traditional categories of teaching, service, and research (TSR) are held as mutually-exclusive and exhaustive classes, the faculty members who teach through their research or research through their teaching will never be held with they regard they deserve. I sometimes wonder to what extent the “TSR” mentality is an impediment to implementing an agenda for institutional transformation, especially as it concerns reforming and enhancing STEM education and integrating teaching and research functions both within and across disciplines.