Close your eyes and picture yourself seated in a chemistry classroom, poised for notetaking. You’re probably expecting a lecture filled with complex diagrams, however today’s class is different. Instead of a lecture, you watched a video on the subject matter the night before. Now, your professor is dividing the students into groups to work on problems that will test your understanding of the material in the video. As the class works, he walks between groups, listening to conversations. At the end, each group reports out, providing an opportunity for the class to discuss any areas of uncertainty.

This teaching method—called “flipped environment”—is just one of several techniques professors who attend the New Faculty Workshop in Chemistry can expect to walk away with. Dr. Rory Waterman, a University of Vermont chemistry professor and researcher, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellowship recipient, is one of its co-founders.

The idea for the workshop arose as a solution to the challenges that many new faculty members face. As Dr. Waterman explains, professors “basically run little companies in their research labs.” In addition to conducting their own research, they must educate students, balance finances and manage personnel. For many, these skills weren’t adequately covered in their graduate or post-doctoral studies and can leave new faculty feeling overwhelmed.

“We get our jobs because we're really good at being chemists,” Dr. Waterman says. “Chemists do the same three things: we make, model and measure. I'm good at making molecules, which means I'm not necessarily good at doing service, teaching or anything else.”

In 2011, Dr. Waterman and his colleague, Dr. Andrew Feig from Wayne State University, both had a lightbulb moment. “We were in Tucson and connected about the idea of starting a professional development workshop for new chemistry faculty,” Dr. Waterman explains. With financial assistance from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the first New Faculty Workshop was soon scheduled. Since then, the workshop has hosted more than 600 faculty members. 

As Dr. Waterman explains this program’s journey, his face is alive with enthusiasm and he laughs easily. It’s not hard to imagine him before a classroom of students or conference room of colleagues stirring up excitement about a new topic. Those attending the workshop can expect to do more than just listen to engaging speakers like Dr. Waterman—they will also be asked to present short lessons. This helps faculty interrupt the pattern of “coming in and doing what they know”, which in chemistry usually means lectures. “It's not that people need to stop lecturing altogether,” he explains, “they just need to break it up.”

So, what are professors supposed to do if long lectures are out? The workshop teaches faculty to focus more on creating “active learning environments, where students spend more time in class thinking and less time listening.” Strategies for creating more active learning environments include the “flipped environment” approach mentioned earlier, in addition to others.

Another method focuses on “just-in-time” teaching, where students take a quiz before class begins. As Dr. Waterman explains, the results of the quiz might show that “eighty percent of the class got this concept right—so we can move on. Or only 10 percent of the class got it right—so we’ll talk about it.” Ultimately, this approach enhances student learning by helping faculty understand where students might be struggling well before the class takes an exam.

Over the past nine years, a handful of studies conducted by Dr. Marilyn Stains, now at the University of Virginia, show that the workshop’s success lies in more than just attendance numbers. “Her studies show that we actually have a nice impact on participants,” Dr. Waterman says with a smile. “Which is good.”

Dr. Waterman may not have started out his career with an eye on faculty professional development, however there is no doubt that it has sort of become his thing. “When I talk to people they say, ‘oh, you must be an associate dean for professional development,’” he chuckles. “Nope, I’m not.”

Instead, this “side project” is built on a desire to help improve his professional community. “This is my time to make things as good as I can for my colleagues.”

PUBLISHED

01-26-2021
Emily Anderson