The Department of Chemistry at the University of Michigan has a long tradition of honoring and acknowledging its role in educating all students, at all levels: undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral.
In the early 1990s, as a strategy to better prepare the next generation of faculty members, Professor Brian Coppola, then a Lecturer in the department, began implementing a simple plan: why couldn’t the same concept of an intergenerational collaborative community, which works so effectively for traditional laboratory research (“the research group”), be used as an infrastructure for sustaining instructional development in a department? And, at the same time, the members of these intergenerational “teaching groups” would be made up of our own students, at all levels, who were interested in academic careers. Unlike the various versions of the chemistry education specialty, these students would be anchored, and drawn from, our existing pool of students who wished to get a broader scholarly development in anticipation of their professional careers.
In his 1996 tenure essay, Professor Coppola outlined the basic argument for creating an intergenerational infrastructure for educational development:
Construction of an Infrastructure for Educational Development
This section represents an overarching aspect of my “chemical education” activities. It outlines a model that could be adapted beyond the chemistry department within the university and also outside of Ann Arbor.
Substantive progress in pedagogy that is centered within disciplinary subject areas is slow compared with traditional research activities. Typically, faculty members who make contributions that are broadly applicable in this area do so late rather than early in their careers. This is true, I think, because faculty are left on their own when it comes to the area of pedagogy, in relative isolation and without much, or any, background or training. Reinvention and rediscovery are two usual methods in curriculum reform! In order to think about this question with respect to peer review, the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) has begun to borrow from the research model in its “Scholarship of Teaching” effort.
The AAHE proposes that some areas in which progress in pedagogy has been hindered, such as the question of evaluation, can benefit from adapting the familiar, existing models from the research domain, such as peer review. This proposition is fundamentally correct, I think, and needs to be examined more deeply. Just a year or so ago, I posed the question about what might be needed for progress in science education in terms of the same (now obvious) analogy: What is critical to scientific progress? Progress is always hindered by the natural forces that resist change, and as much so in science as in anything else. New models are accepted slowly; new ideas are often in conflict with dogma. New observations in chemistry can be relatively easily affirmed by reproducing them, which allows chemists a comfortable advantage when we define what we mean by a fact. But facts are rarely accommodated by a single model, and few new observations cause dramatic shifts in theoretical frameworks. As in the use of epicycles in early astronomy, existing theoretical frameworks undergo small adaptations and accommodations more easily than they undergo substantial changes.
So, how does progress in science take place even in the face of our natural reluctance to make wholesale changes? Clearly, it does not depend on strategies that dismantle the hindrance mechanisms (for example, we do not provide faculty in-service programs on how to promote and support paradigm shifts!) Instead, I argue that progress in scientific research relies on an established infrastructure of guided collaboration and training of the young that starts at the undergraduate level, if not before. In the United States, we surround ourselves with promising young scientists whom we identify on the basis of potential rather than demonstrated skills. We specifically promote their independence during their undergraduate and early graduate research training in preference to affirming and reaffirming their ability to restate dogmatic principles. I am suggesting that progress in science, then, depends on an infrastructure that promotes independence and welcomes creativity from novice participants. This is the lesson from the research domain that I seek to adapt to science education.
My proposition is that progress in science education is analogous to progress in all other forms of intellectual inquiry. It is also hindered by exactly the same factors. However, a formal infrastructure that guides the training of the future professoriate for their teaching careers does not exist. This is the acute problem I have begun to address at the post-secondary level. Faculty members are provided with an extensive support system for the development of their research agenda that begins well before they obtain their PhDs. In order to develop curricular agendas, faculty have been unsupported, and typically wait for many years to begin to make contributions, and work in relative isolation (designing and implementing ideas on their own). If you examine, all at once, the pieces that I have been constructing, you will see the outline of an infrastructure that could allow individuals the opportunity to develop an “instructional agenda” during their formal education. It is far from complete and, unless adapted and linked onto by others, will not accomplish its goal (because no undergraduate student from Michigan enters the graduate program here, then takes a post-doc here and continues on to become a faculty member here…). Some of the ideas have precedent, such as peer instruction; others, such as the structured study groups or the graduate seminar, are not.
What is the basis for this instructional infrastructure? It is the opportunity for students to develop and practice teaching skills, with guidance, and analogous to the way we assist in the development of research skills.
In 1991, the department implemented a Peer-Led Study Group (PLSG) program, providing supplemental instruction in the organic chemistry courses by connecting students who wished to join a peer-led group with senior-level students whose schedules could be matched up. Group leaders receive weekly training sessions on facilitating groups and in the details of the subject matter from a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) assigned to organize the program and provide support for the PLSG leaders. Within a few years, the PLSG program was integrated into the campus’s Science Learning Center, where it stands as its signature program, serving thousands of students across the basic science classes.
In 1994, junior and senior level undergraduate students were hired as Undergraduate Instructional Assistants (UIAs), for the first time, as a part of the teaching program, to run discussion and/or laboratory sections. More significantly, the Honors program accepted a proposal to offer a student-elected Honors option in the organic chemistry classes that would be co-designed and implemented by undergraduate student leaders. This supplemental instruction program, called Structured Study Groups (SSG), provides a creative, “studio” environment for 160-180 students a year who wish to add a broader and deeper look at organic chemistry to their schedules. Over the years, a number of the SSG leaders have ultimately ended up in academic positions, with their first serious engagement as educators derived from their time in this program.
In 1998, the first formal effort for graduate students began. The department was successful in getting a set of graduate student fellowships from the US Department of Education’s GAANN program (Graduate Assistantships in Areas of National Need, which included a call for encouraging doctoral students into academic careers). The department used this opportunity to create CSIE (Chemical Sciences at the Interface of Education), which was a chance to identify and bring together that subset of graduate students interested in faculty careers, and to empower them to organize activities that would enhance their professional preparation as educators. A regular CSIE graduate seminar course was offered, in which a broad discussion of the education literature could combine with modest instructional development proposals, created by the graduate students, for implementation into the department’s teaching program.
Over the period of 1998-2011, GAANN-CSIE fellows proposed, and them implemented, in collaboration with faculty members whom they approached, ideas such as integrating of small-group classroom work in large lecture classes, improving GSI Training, launching an Honors version of first-term organic laboratory, providing pedagogical support for GSIs in large, multi-section classes, creating and supporting Wikipedia editing for graduate and undergraduate level classes, and so on. These fellows also organized, for the department, an ongoing series of seminar/brown-bag/panel sessions on topics of interest to them: pedagogical strategies, education research, running research groups, academic interviewing, promotion and tenure, and the state of higher education, to name a few.
In 2002, the department expanded its future faculty activities to include post-doctoral associates as participants. Using a dual mentorship research and teaching model, post-doctoral associates who were already members in good standing, in their research groups, are hired to teach a section of one of our classes, typically one section in one of our large, multi-section courses. During that term, the post-doc is not only integrated into the existing teaching team, but also learning how to balance a nominal 50:50 distribution of their time between research and teaching. Since 2002, anywhere between 7-15 sections of our courses, each year, have had one of these post-doctoral associates as its instructor.
In 2005, owing to interest from the other basic science departments, the CSIE seminar/brown-bag/panel program was re-christened as PFFS (Preparing Future Faculty in the Sciences) and expanded to participation from Physics, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Astronomy, Geological Sciences, and Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology.
Between 2008-2012, the University of Michigan hosted the IDEA Institute (Instructional Development & Educational Assessment), an effort to codify the “teaching team” concept for future faculty education across the U-M basic sciences, and to deepen the concept for precollege education.
In 2012, after the IDEA Institute closed, the Department of Chemistry brought its concept of future faculty development back into the department, designing and budgeting a permanent version of its work from over the previous 20 years.
In Fall 2014, under the stewardship of the department’s new Associate Chair for Educational Development & Practice, the results from two years worth of planning were rolled out as CSIE|UM: Chemical Sciences at the Interface of Education | University of Michigan.