STEM students take the lead in the classroom
Ian Mason covers everything from inverse equations to the radical root theorem for a class of 25 undergraduates every Wednesday. In a small classroom in the Natural Sciences building on UofL’s Belknap campus, Mason helps students work through complicated problems and shows them new ways to think about an often difficult subject.
“I’ve always approached math as a puzzle, rather than a chore,” he said. “I enjoy the subject, and that’s what keeps me engaged.”
Mason doesn’t have a Ph.D., a Master’s degree, or even a Bachelor’s degree, but he is able to teach his peers College Algebra through the STEM Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) program. That program is part of the Partnership for Retention Improvement in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (PRIMES). This project unites faculty from the College of Arts & Sciences, the Speed School of Engineering, and the College of Education and Human Development in tackling the hurdles students face in undergraduate STEM programs.
I have always been a strong proponent of the idea that you don’t truly know something until you can teach it.
PRIMES is in year five of a two-million-dollar, five-year National Science Foundation grant. The first cohort of UTAs included 48 students; now in the eighth cohort, there are 98 students across eight disciplines participating as UTAs. Research led by Dr. Christine Rich (Chemistry), a principal investigator for the PRIMES project, shows that students whose classes used UTAs had higher exam scores and were three times more likely to enroll in the next level course.
“We never dreamed how much this experience would build the student’s self-confidence and STEM identity,” Dr. Rich said.
In A&S, the Chemistry, Geosciences & Geography, Mathematics, and Physics & Astronomy departments recruit undergraduates for placement in the foundational courses for each department. UTAs have been used as laboratory TAs, as instructors in recitation or supplemental instruction sections, or as classroom assistants during the normal course time.
“Not only am I helping my peers – I’m helping myself,” Mason said. “I’m gaining communication and critical thinking skills, and I’m seeing the material in new ways and reaffirming what I have learned.”
Before the semester begins, students chosen to work as UTAs attend a 2-day workshop developed by Dr. Tom Tretter, from the College of Education and Human Development. PRIMES faculty from all 8 participating departments collaborate on leading workshop activities. UTAs learn basic teaching concepts, and also attend five seminars throughout the semester not only to help support them as they work with their students, but also to help reinforce the pedagogical concepts introduced during the workshop. Dr. Tretter synthesized teaching and learning research into four themes – skillful questioning, metacognition, mental models, and formative assessment techniques – to guide the UTAs as instructors during the semester.
“Most of us think we know what teaching is because we’ve been students,” Dr. Tretter said. “We are giving the UTAs the tools and support to be effective – to know how the science works, and know how they’re thinking and learning about it.”
Chemistry major Carmela Riposo leads an Organic Chemistry lab.
Carmela Riposo is certain that teaching organic chemistry was instrumental in gaining a better understanding of the subject. Working as a UTA allows her to review the topics and has served as a foundation for the leadership and communication skills she needs to attend medical school. Whether Riposo is leading an experiment on the acid-catalyzed hydration of norbornene or lecturing on the mechanism of the reaction, she is happy to serve as a mentor for students. And her work definitely requires that she maintains an in-depth understanding of the subject.
“Students come up with crazy questions that always keep you on your toes and that has really helped me flourish under high-pressure environments and certainly strengthened my leadership skills,” Riposa said. “Because we are similar in age and have been where they are only a few years ago, it seems they have an easier time asking questions, which ultimately improves their understanding of the material.
“I have always been a strong proponent of the idea that you don’t truly know something until you can teach it.”