Imagine yourself an incoming student, in a lecture hall surrounded by 100 classmates, trying to drink from the firehose of information coming at you in your first introductory science course.
“When you look at entering students, despite a passionate interest in STEM or pursuing a health career, we see some beginning to drop out along the way, in part because they find the challenges of the introductory chemistry and biology courses more than they anticipated,” says Lee Witters, a professor of biological sciences and the Eugene W. Leonard 1921 Professor of Medicine and Biochemistry at the Geisel School of Medicine.
Witters, who is in his 47th year of teaching, has come up with solutions to this often intimidating student rite of passage. The Teaching Science Fellows (TSF) program, now in its second year, was conceived and implemented by Witters. He recruits Dartmouth graduates who elect to stay at the College for an additional year, often as a gap year before entering a graduate degree program, to assist in the teaching of the sciences.
2015 Teaching Science Fellows Joshua Prickel ’15 and Therese Kienemund ’15 flank Program Director Lee Witters. (Photo by Robert Gill)
While there are graduate teaching assistants (TAs) available to support undergraduates in their scientific immersion, most of the TAs have come from other institutions and have never experienced Dartmouth courses. The core of the TSF program has been to put in place people who have gone through the curriculum and are devoted to helping the students who follow them.
“This nationally unique program offers assistance to many students in the introductory courses in biology and chemistry and to the faculty teaching these courses, bringing many teaching innovations to the classroom and to students outside of the classroom,” says Witters.
Elizabeth Smith, associate dean of the faculty for the sciences, says the fellows “fill a critical gap in introductory science courses. They are veterans of the Dartmouth experience and are wholly integrated in the classes they serve.
“Having an additional experienced person in the classroom gives the faculty the freedom to innovate where they might not have otherwise without additional human resources well-versed in the course content. The TSFs also provide much-needed feedback throughout the course, alerting the faculty to potential problem areas where students are having the most difficulty,” says Smith, the Paul M. Dauten Jr. Professor of Biological Sciences.
A training program has been constructed to prepare the TSFs for what they face in their new roles. It includes selective readings and discussion, and meetings with Dartmouth faculty and staff who employ innovative practices.
“We are not just throwing them out there,” says Witters. “We are trying to give them some skills, but also give them some independence to do some creative things. We are combining a training program with a help program, as it were, and, to date, it has gone tremendously well.”
Enhancing Science Education with Funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Natalia Vecerek ’14, now a first-year medical student at UCLA, was one of the first TSFs.
“Many of the students were often intimidated to initially approach faculty for help but, as I was close to them in age, they felt comfortable approaching me,” says Vecerek. “I derived great joy from assisting students to better understand concepts and was thrilled by the student appreciation of the additional academic support that I provided.”
This year’s fellows are Therese Kienemund ’15 and Joshua Prickel ’15. “I knew that I wanted to teach chemistry during my gap year while applying to medical school, and the TSF program was an amazing opportunity to do just that, and stay in Hanover, which I am very happy about,” says Prickel.
“This summer I assisted in ‘Chemistry 52,’ the second half of organic chemistry, with Professor Wendy Epps, and it was hugely successful. We received much positive feedback about the course and TSF participation. Now I am working with general chemistry, specifically ‘Chemistry 5.’”
Teaching Science Fellow Joshua Prickle guides “Chem 5” students toward an understanding of gas-phase equilibrium and how to calculate equilibrium partial pressures for both reactants and products. (Photo by Robert Gill)
Kienemund says, “In the particular courses with which we are involved, we are present in the classroom and we support the professor with whatever interactive activities they want to do. Outside of that, we are happy to meet with any student interested in the sciences or currently taking any other science class to work on their study habits to discuss how to manage their time, and integrate their studies with other aspects of their lives.
“As former students, we have this really holistic approach to student success and well-being. We do biweekly evening review sessions at convenient times and locations for the students where we answer questions and we are also available to review materials; not necessarily specific questions, but just ‘let’s talk about that concept again, I am still a little blurry,’ ” she says.
Witters sees his TSFs as integrators. “There are so many resources at Dartmouth to help students, such as Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL), Dartmouth Educational Technologies (Ed Tech), and the Academic Skill Center,” Witters says. “The fellows are sort of the fulcrum here to bring those things together—to allow communication in both directions—from these resources into the classroom, from the classroom out to these resources—a virtual conduit.”
Therese Kienemund leads a discussion about molecular mechanisms by which enzymes may lower the activation energy of biological reactions. (Photo by Robert Gill)