Program to train graduate TAs wins AAU support

A Cornell project to train graduate teaching assistants in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields to increase their use of active-learning classroom strategies received a $20,000 mini-grant from the Association of American Universities (AAU) Feb. 14. The grants will further existing efforts to improve undergraduate education in STEM disciplines.

The Cornell program, said Julia Thom-Levy, provost’s fellow for pedagogical innovation and associate professor of physics, “will increase the recognition of the role that TAs play, and will help create a community of TAs in gateway courses across the university. This is important – TAs critically shape how and what students learn, especially in the very large lecture courses.”

Active learning emphasizes hands-on activities and frequent student-student and student-instructor interactions. Instead of a traditional lecture approach, students prepare for class in advance through videos, readings, online exercises and quizzes, so class time is spent on building expertise through problem-solving, experiments and group discussions.

Through networking with active-learning practitioners, facilitating workshops for other TAs and completing an active-learning leadership workshop, Cornell participants will gain skills and experiences that benefit their teaching and their students’ learning.

To provide TAs with the knowledge and experience they need to successfully implement active-learning approaches, the Cornell Center for Teaching Excellence will offer competitive Distinguished Active Learning Teaching Assistant Fellowships. Two cohorts of six TAs each will be selected in spring 2017 and spring 2018. This effort will go hand in hand with the recently expanded Active Learning Initiative in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to Cornell, grants went to 11 institutions also active in the AAU STEM Education Network: the California Institute of Technology; Iowa State University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; McGill University; the University of Texas at Austin; University of California, Irvine; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Kansas; University of Missouri, Columbia; University of Virginia; and Yale University.

The AAU grants fund specific departmental or collegewide improvements, which include creating learning communities for STEM faculty members involved in reform efforts, establishing programs to train graduate students and undergraduate teaching assistants or peer advisers in active learning practices, developing teaching evaluation programs, implementing an educational analytics program, and redesigning STEM courses.

The network is an outgrowth of the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, a major project begun in 2011 to encourage STEM departments at AAU universities to use teaching practices proven to be effective in engaging students in STEM education and in helping students learn.

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Melissa Osgood