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Vet College's new program trains grad students to be teachers, too

When Robin Davisson, a Cornell molecular physiology professor, started her career at the University of Iowa's medical school, she was unexpectedly asked to teach a neuroanatomy course to more than 140 medical, dental and physician assistant students in her first full semester on the job. With minimal teaching experience and training, she struggled at first -- an all-too-common challenge for new faculty everywhere.

"If I had even a little bit of a foundation in teaching, I would have been more confident," Davisson said. "My story is not unique. We don't train our graduate students to teach, despite the fact that many of them face academic careers where they are required to teach."

To give graduate students such essential training, Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine has partnered with the university's Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) to launch the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) Graduate Research and Teaching Fellowship Program, the first subject-specific teacher training offered on campus.

CTE's existing universitywide graduate teacher training program, which is open to all graduate students, already provides instruction in pedagogical theory and course design, but the new BBS certificate program combines those elements with complementary discipline-oriented teaching experience, provided by the field's best on-campus teachers.

Developed by Davisson and Richard Kiely, CTE's associate director, the two-year, eight-to-10 credit BBS program requires courses on teaching in higher education and applications in teaching biomedical sciences; a practicum that includes two faculty-mentored teaching assistantships in field-specific courses; and an electronic teaching and professional development portfolio that includes a curriculum vitae, research statement, teaching philosophy statement, syllabus, samples of teaching plans and reflective commentary. At the end, students defend their portfolio before a faculty teaching committee before they receive the teaching certificate.

Each year, four students starting their third year of graduate school will be chosen for the program. To qualify, students must be in excellent academic standing to ensure they can handle the rigors of lab research along with the teaching program.

"This is not for a student who is struggling," said Davisson. "Students must have the passion to really want to do this."

Emily Cornwell, who completed the pilot BBS teaching program while working on her dual D.V.M. and Ph.D. in the field of comparative biomedical sciences, said that teaching has helped her research, an insight that is supported by studies.

"The questions the students asked me caused me to think about my research in different ways," Cornwell said. Also, teaching forces students to explain and communicate their work more effectively, Davisson added.

"Training like this gives you an edge; we have research to support that," said Theresa Pettit, CTE's director. And when it comes time to apply for jobs, "interviewers are amazed" by the candidates' teaching background, said Kiely of students who have completed CTE's universitywide program. "This gives job applicants a leg up, because they actually have an electronic teaching and professional development portfolio the minute they start the job search process," he added.

Over the past year, CTE received a Teagle Foundation Grant to support a graduate teaching certificate initiative in partnership with the Graduate School and the Departments of Biomedical Sciences and City and Regional Planning. "We think many other departments and units will be very excited now that this model has been developed [at BBS]," said Pettit.

So far, faculty members have supported their students who are developing teaching skills while conducting lab work, and some are even asking about such teaching training for themselves. More than 50 already have enrolled in CTE's recently created Faculty Teaching Certificate Program, Pettit said.

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Joe Schwartz