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NSF-funded workshops help young researchers teach science

EAST LANSING, Mich. Early career scientists will leave the lab this summer to apply their scientific skills to effective teaching, sharpening their skills at workshops held around the country by Michigan State University and partners.

As enrollment in science majors grows, college-level science teaching must forego the straight lecture approach in favor of inquiry-based learning, according to MSU plant biology professor Diane Ebert-May, a passionate researcher and advocate of learner-based instruction. Under her initiative, MSU has landed a four-year, $2 million National Science Foundation grant to train 200 postdoctoral researchers to teach scientifically.

"Many postdoctoral scholars are deeply involved in research and have few opportunities to develop their skills as teachers yet many desire to do so," Ebert-May said. "Once they finish their postdoc positions and join the faculty of a university, they are responsible for both research and teaching, yet they have minimal preparation for teaching science effectively to college students. Our approach gives these future college professors proven methods for teaching science effectively."

The Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching will attract postdoctoral researchers from across the country. These are scientists who are expected to implement state-of-the-art instruction from an early point in their careers. It is the largest program of its kind, led by Ebert-May and by Terry Derting of Murray State University.

FIRST will conduct four-day workshops this summer and next for 100 postdoctoral biologists. Another 100 will follow in 2011 and 2012. Expert scientists who are innovators in teaching will conduct workshops at five biology field stations across the country, including MSU's Kellogg Biological Station north of Kalamazoo.

Participants will return to their institutions later this year to teach or help teach introductory biology courses using curricula they design at the workshops. Scientists involved in the project will mentor postdocs throughout the academic year, after which participants will return the following summer to fine-tune their instructional designs and teaching skills based on assessment data.

"A real challenge in science education is engaging the students by igniting a passion and placing them in situations where they are applying the methods of science," Ebert-May said. "Once a student learns about the nature of science and how to build scientific knowledge, we find they excel, even if they are somebody who does not consider themselves strong in science."

"To best prepare people for understanding the complexities of modern biology, we have found that scientific teaching is key," Ebert-May said. "Our data show these methods work in improving science literacy, and the NSF grant allows us to replicate our methods with the next generation of college science professors."

Scientists seeking NSF-funded positions for postdoctoral researchers must now include a mentoring plan for their scholars in grant proposals, Ebert-Mays said. "That's another positive move toward developing career scientists who are skilled in teaching."


Contact: Mike Steger
Michigan State University

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