Thursday, May 10, 2012

Guest Post: Kate Follette on Encouraging Graduate Students to be Good Teachers and Better Communicators

Kate Follette is a graduate student at Steward Observatory and an adjunct instructor at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. Her scientific research focuses on planet formation in circumstellar disks, and she is also engaged in educational research on mitigating quantitative illiteracy through introductory science courses for non-majors.

Encouraging Graduate Students to be Good Teachers and Better Communicators

I had an interesting discussion recently with a well-respected senior scientist about the benefits of pedagogical and communication training for graduate students. This was in connection with a proposal to start a graduate course on that topic. I mentioned that I was surprised that such a course was not already offered and, more than that, required as part of our degree program. This wasn’t an intentionally radical statement. In fact, the benefits of such a program seemed clear and abundant to me, so I was surprised at how our conversation progressed.

He countered immediately with an argument that I’ve heard before – “not all graduate students will be required to teach in their future careers”. This one didn’t faze me too much, and I already had a practiced response.

I told him that this was probably true, but that pedagogical skills are essentially communication skills. The majority of us do have to teach in some capacity during our careers, but more than that, virtually all of us have to give public lectures, write grants, and interact with people who want to hear about what we do, and this kind of training can make us better at those as well.

In fact, as astronomers, this may be more important for us than your average scientist. People think that what we do is cool. Before we even open our mouths, they already want to know more. In this sense, we are leaps and bounds ahead of many scientists in our ability to reach the public and convince them that science is a worthy human endeavor – worthy of their tax dollars, support and attention.

This big-picture argument didn’t win him over, however, so I decided to use a real-world example instead (always a good pedagogical practice). I told him that I’d been required to take 3 courses on extragalactic phenomena in order to complete my astronomy degree, but will probably never use any of that knowledge in my science. How was this any different? What harm could it possibly do to give all graduate students some pedagogical training?

Now before you extragalactic astronomers get up in arms about my argument, let me clarify, as I did to him, that I am not arguing that those classes weren’t beneficial to me. Since taking them, I’ve been able to fold in much more interesting material on modern cosmology and big unanswered questions into my general astronomy courses. I’m better able to follow journal clubs and colloquia outside of my field and, perhaps even more importantly, when the guy sitting next to me on the plane asks “so what is a black hole anyway?” I don’t have to make something up.

Broad education makes us all better at the “other” things we do. None of us sit in front of our computer reducing data day in and day out. Interacting with students, the public, journalists and even other scientists is part of our job. Not only do most of us shy away from these responsibilities as a “waste of our time”, on the whole we are also absolutely terrible at them.

How many truly awful talks have you endured by monkeying with your smartphone (Yes! I mean you, not your students!)? How many of you have had a student tell you they’re “not a science person”? Have you ever heard one say they’re “not a reading person”? How many of you have been asked questions about ancient aliens building the pyramids or the upcoming 2012 apocalypse and dismissed them out of hand?

We as scientists bear the brunt of the responsibility for creating a scientifically illiterate public. That’s right – it’s our own fault that the NSF and NASA don’t have more popular support, that the general public thinks that we spend our time locked in an ivory tower thinking about things that are not at all relevant to them, that your average person doesn’t know the difference between good science and pseudoscience. We don’t bother to develop the skills to tell them what we do effectively because it might cut into our time to do science. How many generations will go by then until speciation occurs and the “scientist” becomes a completely marginalized entity? How long until we go extinct?

Rather than give you the entire blow-by-blow of the argument (which is what our conversation devolved to), let me just say that I pulled out all of my best stuff, but was still unable to convince my opponent. I’ve been dwelling on this interaction for weeks now, and it still has that bitter aftertaste of a political debate in which you just can’t understand where the other side could possibly be coming from.

So I’m going to put the onus on you, WIA blog readers, to tell me - am I wrong here? Is this an important issue? How important? Would you still support it if it meant realigning our priorities and requirements?

I’ll leave you with a radical thought - what if graduate students spent a little less time on science during their graduate career and a little more time on learning to communicate it? Would such a compromise make them better or worse prepared for their future career?


Rick Fienberg said...

In my opinion, you are 100% correct. And I'm not the only one who feels this way. The AAS mission statement, adopted in 2009 after lengthy deliberation by the AAS Council and displayed at the top of our home page, begins this way: “The mission of the American Astronomical Society is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe.” Elaborating on the word “share,” the statement goes on to say, “The Society represents the goals of its community of members to the nation and the world,” and “The Society assists its members to develop their skills in the fields of education and public outreach at all levels. The Society promotes broad interest in astronomy, which enhances science literacy and leads many to careers in science and engineering.”

On the education side, we’ve been offering weekend workshops for pedagogical training before most AAS meetings for many years now, and we collaborate with the AAPT and APS in their annual New Faculty Workshop, which also focuses on effective pedagogy. On the outreach side, we’re developing a new series of workshops, in collaboration with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and other organizations, to train a cadre of Astronomy Ambassadors in effective communication with the public.

As AAS Education & Outreach Coordinator, one of my long-term goals is to help develop exactly the type of course you describe in your first paragraph and to encourage its adoption by all the graduate programs that train current and future AAS members. I look forward to the day when no senior scientist can be well respected if he or she objects to the notion that every scientist needs good communication skills and that these should be instilled in graduate school -- if not sooner!

physicsrandi said...

I wholeheartedly agree that such training should be required during grad school. Isn't the whole point of grad school that it is training students for their future careers? There's the very valid argument that, in fact, a great many of the jobs in astronomy do require a teaching load or outreach component, and so a large fraction of grad students will be required to teach in some capacity in the future. Isn't choosing not to train these grad students now more of a disservice to future students, than the inconvenience of grad students taking one more class (for example) that they are very likely to benefit from in other ways as well?

kelle said...

Absolutely spot on. I am also working to incorporate a variety of communications workshops as part of the Employment Committee's professional development activities at the AAS Meetings.

Changing the undergrad and phd curricula, however, will take much longer.

I must admit, however, I've stopped wasted my time trying to convince people who don't get it. There are enough of us who do that are up and coming, and indeed, already in leadership positions, that change is afoot, whether everybody agrees with it or not.

And why waste energy on deaf ears? In my opinion, that time can be better spent organizing a local workshop or mini-course with your campus grad student or postdoc associations. You don't need to convince him, just do it yourself!

kelle said...

just read the article through one more time -- so great to hear that you trying to get a new course! My first reaction to that however, is that's probably biting off more than you can chew and is more trouble than it's worth. Save that task for when you're department chair. Right now, concentrate your efforts to getting support from organizations where you have more power and the politics might be more manageable, like the grad student association. I wouldn't fight the fight for getting credit for a communications class in a science PhD program just yet. Heck, I'm faculty and am having a hard time getting people to consider a computer science course or two as part of the Physics major.

Unknown said...
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Kate said...

Thanks Rick, Randi and Kelle! It's nice to be reminded that other people care, and your efforts, examples and leadership are much appreciated!

Before I get in trouble, I should point out that the "powers that be" in my department were actually quite enthusiastic about starting this class as an elective. They're skeptical about whether it's sustainable in the long run (as in after I graduate), and maybe that's fair, but I hope that they're wrong and that this continues to be of interest to grad students in my department in the future.

I agree that we're a long way from incorporating such things into the requirements for a PhD, but maybe the acceptance of my proposal is a sign that attitudes are beginning to change.

I asked for a show of hands in our last grad meeting re: how many people thought they might take the course if it was offered next spring, and 75% of the people in the room raised their hands! I don't know how many will follow through, but that was enough to convince me that I should write the formal university proposal.

If all goes well, perhaps I'll be writing another blog entry at this time next year about how the class went!

Catherine Neish said...

I know such courses have been offered at Steward before. Suresh Sivanandam worked with Ed and Gina to develop something along these lines in ~2005:

ASTR 596F -- College Astronomy Teaching (1 unit)
Description: An overview of the introductory astronomy curriculum, effective teaching approaches that focus on student learning, and appropriate testing and grading methods for students planning on teaching at the collegiate level. Current topics in pedagogical content knowledge are covered in depth, with an emphasis on the undergraduate non-science major.

It looks like this course was only offered between 2005 and 2007, but this might provide a good starting point. I know you have a lot of allies at the UA - good luck with your course proposal.

Catherine Neish
(LPL alumna, 2004-2008)