PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
What works: Observations from the field
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?
I teach organic chemistry in a community college. It is one of the more difficult courses that our students take and their experience in the classroom can influence their decision to pursue further STEM education. My awareness of this has a bearing on what happens in my classroom.
I endeavor to transmit to students the excitement and opportunities in STEM studies and careers (as do all STEM faculty). In addition, I show students that there is a logic to organic chemistry and provide them with the necessary practice so that their problem solving skills develop. I have noticed that as student’s problem solving skills develop so does their confidence and interest in the class.
My classes are usually held in a computer lab with a seating arrangement that facilitates group work and interaction. I go over main concepts and most of the instructional time is spent applying these concepts to solve assignments. Students work in groups in solving these problems after which they present it to class. Often, the problems pertain to real-life applications and are in the form of case studies that I developed. The focus of the discussion is the reason/logic for a particular proposed solution. I ensure that each student has an active role in these discussions and takes turns in presenting.
Moreover, I strive to make connections with each student in the class so that he/she would feel comfortable discussing (with me) their strengths and areas for improvement and commit to a plan of action to remedy the latter.
I hope that a visitor would leave with the impression that many students have of my classroom: a place where learning occurs in nurturing and supportive environment, a place where there is sometimes excitement but mainly hard work, a place where there is noticeable growth, a place where students look forward to attending and a class that heightened their awareness of their potential for further STEM studies an a possible STEM career.
My relationship with students though is not confined to the classroom. Each semester, I mentor several students on undergraduate research. The research projects are community-based and the problems addressed are ones that our students can directly relate to. These projects pertain to the medicinal chemistry of herbal medicines and the nutritional value of foods consumed by immigrant communities in New York City. Students working on these projects are provided with the opportunity to investigate problems that directly relate to their lives. Many of these students presented their research results at national meetings and a few are co-authors on papers I am preparing for publication. The realization that STEM education can be used to directly benefit one’s community is a powerful motivating factor to pursue further STEM studies and careers. I am pleased that each one of these students has transferred to senior colleges and many have gone on to graduate schools. A visitor to my lab and meeting with these students would understand that community colleges are also the breeding ground for STEM researchers.
What brought you to an interest in “advancing the frontiers of education” and to connecting your research to that work?
A career teaching in a community college was not intentional. I relocated to NYC and started teaching as an adjunct at two community colleges (in order to support myself) whilst seeking an industrial research position. In time, I realized that I gained much more satisfaction from teaching than I did in my previous industrial research career and also that there was a need for STEM faculty with industrial/practical experience, since so many students were unaware of the opportunities in industry for well-educated STEM students. As such, I accepted a teaching position at BMCC. I was very enthusiastic about teaching but had no formal education or training on pedagogy and was not part of the network of STEM educators. I am not sure how effective I was. Often I was overwhelmed, confused and at a loss as to how best to focus my efforts to the benefit of my students and institution, whilst at the same time, develop personally and professionally. An invitation to a PKAL meeting held to NYC by a colleague (and now my F21 mentor) Nkechi Agwu, was an important event in my teaching career. My meeting with Jeanne and F21 members at the meeting and listening to presentations was awakening.
PKAL’s work on building and sustaining strong STEM programs and their focus on leadership development resonated with me. My participation in PKAL’s “Science For All” leadership initiative has provided me with the training and network that have been the support of a lot of what I do today. I realized that mentoring undergraduate research students was an effective way to motivate students to pursue further STEM studies and that community-based research was a viable option. In addition, I realized the need to engage in leadership activities in order to further STEM education. As such, I have initiated faculty development activities for new STEM faculty and also do actively seek out and collaborate with new faculty on undergraduate research projects.
Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?
The teaching loads of community college faculty members is very heavy; some may even say, brutal. It is one of the reasons that undergraduate research and/or research into pedagogy and learning does not flourish in such institutions. In addition, the infrastructure and resources needed to support such activities are often not in place. What made me persevere was that it was obvious that what I was doing was making a difference to students. Another reason was the fact that out institution was supportive of my efforts, expressed their appreciation and showed this in a tangible way by purchasing instruments to support my research efforts. A third reason was the knowledge that there was a network of STEM faculty engaged in “advancing the frontiers of education” willing to support and share their experiences.
What connections have been of most value in doing this?
Participating in leadership activities on campus gave me visibility and access to colleagues and administrators. It made it easier to seek collaboration with colleagues on interdisciplinary projects and also support from the institution. In addition, reaching out and connecting with senior college faculty on nearby campuses turned out to be beneficial as, periodically, I was able to ask them to allow my students to use instruments (which we do not have). The network developed from participating in PKAL’s “Science For All” initiative was also of great help and value in sustaining my efforts.
What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and teaching?
The institutional culture should be one that not only supports such activities but actively promotes those activities and reward faculty members who engage in such activities. Provision of release time, mentoring of new faculty, subscription to research and educational journals and opportunities to attend national meeting and network with colleagues are all positive steps that institutions can take to encourage such activities.