Teaching, in all its forms takes center stage
"The foundation of any state is the education of its youth."
- Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, inscribed on obelisk at the entrance to Academy Park on the West Lafayette Campus.
The great thinkers of ancient Greece, the philosophes of the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers of the United States shared one belief: An essential building block of civilization is education. The foundation of education at Purdue is teaching - in the classroom, the laboratory, the study session, the hallway and now at a distance over the Internet, among other venues.
To support, nurture and renew the process of teaching and learning, the University has in place a number of programs. Among them:
* The Committee for the Education of Teaching Assistants, made up of faculty and
graduate and undergraduate students who create programs to enhance graduate teaching.
Finally, the physical campus at West Lafayette boasts Academy Park, a space set aside to honor teaching. Dedicated a year ago, the park pays tribute to the thousands of faculty members who, since 1874, have helped ensure the success of Purdue students and alumni.
College teaching can be a solitary pursuit.
Whether planning or delivering lectures, grading papers or counseling students, opportunities are rare for sharing ideas in a structured way to learn from others to improve teaching.
A new mentoring program at Purdue, funded by alumni and involving all academic schools, takes selected professors from the classroom setting once or twice a month to share ideas, successes - and the occasional horror story.
Started in January 1997, Teaching for Tomorrow matches two senior faculty - those with 10 or more years of teaching experience who have won school or University teaching awards - with eight junior faculty members. To qualify, the eight must have in their short careers shown potential for excellence in the classroom.
Senior faculty also look in on junior faculty's classes to help them build confidence and learn new techniques.
"It combines formal and informal mentoring to foster excellence in teaching and learning on campus," says Muriel Harris, professor of English and one of two senior faculty in the first Teaching for Tomorrow group.
Teaching for Tomorrow is funded by the Class of 1944 and the Class of 1945, which together raised enough to create an endowment of more than $350,000. The money is used for faculty-enrichment grants for the senior and junior faculty, as well as funds to reimburse departments for the release time for participating faculty.
A new group of two senior and eight junior faculty will be chosen each spring through a nominating process that begins with dean's offices in each of the 12 academic schools. The annual renewal ensures that the investment by the classes of 1944 and 1945 will pay dividends throughout the University.
"If we have 10 people involved each year, then in 10 years we have 100 faculty connected to teaching and mentoring," says Robert Ringel, executive vice president for academic affairs.
Although professors are a busy lot - frequently Teaching for Tomorrow faculty dash in for some of the monthly meetings or have to leave the session to get to class on time - they look forward to the meetings.
"Especially for the junior faculty, we have the opportunity to interact with people from different schools on issues related to teaching and learning," says Sidney Moon, associate professor of educational studies.
The topics discussed at the Teaching for Tomorrow sessions have one goal in common: improving the quality of the education that students receive. One week it might be the various learning styles of students and ways to tailor instruction to those differing styles. Another time it might be ways to make students feel more comfortable. Still another might be how to keep all students engaged - not just the extroverts.
For instance, Rebecca Doerge, assistant professor of statistics, arrives early for large lectures and passes out homework, rather than having students pick it up after class.
"It gives me a chance to get to know names and faces and say, `How are you doing?'" she says.
The hints and tips exchanged during the meetings are like single brush strokes that, taken together with thousands of others, form a portrait of great teaching.
One recent session focused on the uses of writing regardless of the course being taught.
Harris uses journal writing in all her classes. She asked others in the group whether and how they use writing.
Most did, but the discussion reinforced what all already knew was a good idea. "I tell my students that they're going to be writing memos and notes the rest of their lives, and not taking tests," says James Vorst, professor of agronomy and the other senior faculty member in the first Teaching for Tomorrow group.
Alan Grant, associate professor of animal sciences and a junior faculty member, also uses journal writing to help his students put down on paper the material they've just covered.
"I give them three minutes to summarize the major points from class," he says.
Three times each semester, Grant collects the journals. He leafs through them, writing in the margins.
"I found something positive to say about everybody by using this approach," he says.
Departments and schools have for years encouraged faculty to share ideas and collaborate. In staff meetings and workshops, professors swap successes and challenges. The Teaching for Tomorrow program offers a way for good ideas and good teaching to spread across schools.
"It's not a matter of creating good teachers but, rather, creating a way to help faculty become better at what they're already committed to," Ringel says.
The second Teaching for Tomorrow group was named in April. Those members will meet with the outgoing group to share ideas on how to improve the meetings and the overall mentoring program.
Vorst says he appreciates Purdue alumni who graduated more than 50 years ago funding a program that will improve a Purdue education for today's students.
"How often and where else can we spend time together in this way?" he says. "This program has opened up opportunities for us to interact with people we never would have without Teaching for Tomorrow."
Stories by Jay Cooperider
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