Fellowships prepare graduate students for successful teaching careers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Minchen Wei aspires to make a difference in the lives of others by teaching. The architectural engineering graduate student says he already has a solid teaching foundation, thanks to a fellowship he received from the College of Engineering.

This fall, Wei is one of four graduate students who are participating in the college's new Distinguished Teaching Fellowship program, which was designed to provide fellows with a unique opportunity to gain valuable teaching experience.

Fellows spend one semester teaching a course under the guidance of a faculty mentor, including preparing all course materials, overseeing lab activities and grading exams.

In addition to Wei, fall 2014 fellows are: Ko Basu, aerospace engineering; Emil Laftchiev, electrical engineering; and Amy Mensch, mechanical and nuclear engineering.

To help prepare for their new teaching positions, fellows are invited to special professional development and networking events, including the new engineering faculty orientation. Laftchiev said the workshops have introduced him to new ideas for delivering material in his EE 210 Circuits and Devices course.

Fellows also are paired with a faculty member who helps guide them through the semester. All four agree that their mentor plays a critical role in the program's success.

Mensch said Laura Pauley, professor of mechanical engineering, has taught her more effective ways to structure and present materials to her NUC E 309 Analytical Techniques for Nuclear Concept class. "She also provides tips for creating assignments and assessments that have been effective in the past."

Laftchiev said David Salvia, assistant professor of electrical engineering and the department's undergraduate program coordinator, has helped him rethink his teaching approach. "As a new exam writer, I often tend to ask overly complicated questions with lots of misleading paths. With Dave's mentorship, I now write more pointed questions that help effectively test whether or not students have learned the material."

Indeed, the experience is shedding some light on aspects of the teaching profession that the fellows may not have otherwise considered.

Wei noted, "Teaching the AE 464 Advanced Architectural Illumination Systems & Design course requires a lot of effort and consumes a lot of time, which is much more difficult than I thought. Interacting with students in class is very important, too, because it can keep them engaged and give me insight about whether students really understand the material."

Laftchiev added, "I have learned to teach progressively, covering material briefly in one lecture and then more in-depth the next. I find that this improves students' ability to understand the information."

The fellows also have become more aware of the many obstacles faculty face on a day-to-day basis.

Basu said he is finding it challenging to manage seven different senior design topics in his AERSP401A Preliminary Spacecraft Design class.

Mensch struggles to provide consistent and fair grading. "Even though we make a rubric ahead of time for each assessment, students always write something unexpected." 

Wei added that he has a hard time figuring out whether the content is challenging to the students. "Sometimes, the material I do not expect to be challenging is challenging to the students and the content I expect to be challenging is actually not so difficult for them."

Not surprisingly, all four fellows highly recommend the program and offer words of wisdom for future fellows.

Mensch said, "Take as much as you can from your faculty mentors. They have many years of experience and can help you avoid pitfalls."

She also noted that fellows should not be afraid to try new techniques or explain topics in a different way. "If it is successful, that's great. If it is not successful, you will have learned from your own experience."

Laftchiev suggests every student should teach a course during his or her graduate career at Penn State. "Teaching a course helps graduate students see learning from all angles and therefore improves their own ability to learn."

Last Updated November 18, 2014