The Distinguished Teacher/Scholar program recognizes outstanding faculty members who actively enhance teaching and learning on campus and supports innovative projects that recipients develop as part of the selection process. Award recipients serve as consultants and mentors to other faculty members and departments seeking to explore new instructional methods and revitalize their teaching programs.
Discussions to explore inquiry- and community-based learning
While study-abroad programs and active learning experiences are viewed by most teachers as transformative and valuable experiences for students, developing, maximizing and sustaining opportunities for those experiences can be a challenge.
Faculty members – as well as students, teaching assistants and other interested scholars – have the opportunity to explore the benefits of inquiry-based and community-based learning activities and how teachers can incorporate these activities into their curricula through a series of weekly discussions. The discussion series is being led by two of the campus’s 2007 Distinguished Teacher/ Scholars: Walt Hurley, a professor of animal sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and Prasanta Kalita, a professor in the department of agricultural and biological engineering in the College of Engineering and the College of ACES.
The seminar series, “Undergraduates Engaging in Inquiry,” runs Sept. 19 through Nov. 28 and features guest presenters and other resources that explore topics such as inquiry-based learning and community-based learning on the local through global levels, the developmental transition that occurs in students and how teachers can facilitate or guide these experiences to maximize their impact for all students. During the spring semester, participants will explore these topics in greater depth, and examine models or examples of activities they might use in their classrooms.
“Most of our faculty members are interested in exploring how they can get our students to think critically,” Hurley said. “Active learning is one very significant approach. But there’s a big difference between the theoretical versus actually making it happen.”
While Hurley and Kalita’s scholarly interests might seem disparate – Hurley’s research focuses on lactation biology and Kalita’s on water quality and environmental issues – they share an interest in inquiry-based learning and community engagement.
The discussion series provides a framework for accomplishing the objectives in Chancellor Richard Herman’s strategic plan for the Urbana campus related to promoting intercultural learning and scholarship by increasing undergraduates’ participation in study abroad activities and increasing the number of undergraduates who gain research and internship/practicum experience.
Students who have learned abroad represent an “extensive, untapped resource that may be used to internationalize and globalize” courses in which they’re enrolled, Hurley said. In order to tap into those resources, Hurley is testing a course that students take upon returning from summer internships in other countries. This semester, the study-abroad students from various departments within ACES will deliver joint presentations and participate in panel discussions in several classes. The program has been funded in part by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s International Science and Education Program.
The USDA grant that underwrites the program in ACES ends in 2008, presenting the problem of how to sustain the program beyond then, another topic that participants will explore in the discussion series.
“To sustain any program, you need financial resources,” Kalita said. “The state funding just isn’t there anymore. By joining efforts, we may be able to come up with something to sustain and improve our efforts.”
Kalita is serving as research adviser to an interdisciplinary team of undergraduate and graduate students that is developing a bioremediation water filtration system. The team has been testing its system on two farms near Monticello and will travel to India in December to install it on a farm there. The team is collaborating with a student-faculty team from G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Pantnagar, India, on the project.
The team has garnered several grants for its work, including a $75,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a national competition at the National Academy of Sciences in May. “It’s a very good growth process with the students,” Kalita said about community-based learning. “They develop critical thinking skills and become very responsible. It makes them whole. (Their work) is not going to just affect their grade. It’s going to affect somebody in the community.”
Hurley said, “We have extremely bright students at this institution, and it puts them in a position to show what they have to offer as opposed to sitting in a course passively memorizing things.”
The benefits to students of active learning are well documented, but faculty members benefit as well. “It keeps life interesting,” Hurley said. “It’s rarely the same thing twice. There’s always something new going on. It’s fun.”
During their careers, Hurley and Kalita have amassed an impressive array of departmental, university, national and international teaching awards.
Some of Hurley’s most recent awards include the Karl E. Gardner Outstanding Undergraduate Adviser Award (2007) from ACES, the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (2007), and a Campus Award for Innovation in Undergraduate Instruction (2005). Hurley joined the UI faculty in 1982.
Kalita’s recent honors include the President’s Distinguished Service Citation Award from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (2007), a Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Education (2007), and the 2005 National Award for Excellence in College and University Teaching from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Higher Education Program. Kalita joined the UI faculty in 1999.
The discussion series is co-sponsored by the Center for Teaching Excellence.
Dialogue seeks to maximize impact of large lecture courses
Professor Bruce Michelson believes large lecture courses are a necessity and not something to fear. “There have been lots of times when the lecture courses have been not only popular but also good,” he said. Michelson, who teaches large classes such as English 255, wants to explore the characteristics of large-enrollment classes and the means instructors use to engage students.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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Although lecture courses with enrollments of 60 or more students are staples of undergraduate students’ academic diets, large lecture courses are often regarded as not being the optimal learning environment. But according to Bruce Michelson, a professor of English, when alumni are asked to recall courses and instructors that left an indelible impression on them, they often talk about courses “where the room was pretty full, but the dynamic was rich and genuine, and exciting education took place.”
Michelson said that large lecture courses at Illinois go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the UI mushroomed from a school with a total enrollment of 250 to a campus of more than 4,000 students.
“Lecture courses are a necessity,” Michelson said. “We tend, however, in our educational philosophy to flinch away from them,” and emphasize when reaching out to the potential students the percentages of classes with fewer students.
“That really does run counter to historical truths that we can find going back through educational history. There have been lots of moments when the lectures courses have been not only popular but also good.”
As a 2007-2008 Distinguished Teacher/Scholar, Michelson seeks to maximize the impact of several high-enrollment courses on campus by stimulating an interdisciplinary dialogue among the outstanding teachers who lead them. Working from a list of high-enrollment courses on campus, Michelson has asked department heads to recommend faculty members who would be interested in participating in a short, intensive series of meetings during the spring semester, along with representatives from the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Instructional Space Advisory Group and innovative faculty members from other campuses who have national reputations as lecturers. Additionally, advanced graduate students who are interested in nurturing their skills as lecturers would be encouraged to attend as well.
The outcome of these sessions will be a proposal to campus administrators about developing and publicizing “landmark” lecture courses that will improve the quality and reputation of undergraduate teaching at Illinois.
Among the topics Michelson wants to explore in these sessions are the characteristics of large-enrollment classes that pique student interest and foster respect and enthusiasm and the specific resources– such as capital, time, or technology – that teachers of these courses need to make these courses work better. He also wants a dialogue about the best use of technology and the means instructors use to engage students, and about melding students’ social lives and their academic experiences.
“From the point of view of some students, a large lecture can be a course where on and off you can hide. It might not be a universal rule that every student has to be eagerly and loquaciously engaged all the time,” Michelson said. “There may be moments where in fact we nurture the attention span in other ways than getting students to talk all the time.”
Michelson, who often teaches one of these large lecture courses, English 255, said he is concerned about the “back row”: that group of students who cluster in the furthest reaches of the lecture hall and act like spectators rather than full participants. Engaging with a generation of students who have spent a good portion of their formative years in front of television and computer screens, who haven’t cultivated the art of interpersonal conversation, and whose social interactions revolve around online communities such as MySpace and Facebook, is just one of the challenges facing instructors who teach classes with large enrollments.
“We’re now in a cultural moment where the technology and the everyday concerns and experiences that we work with seem to be changing every 15 minutes,” Michelson said. “We’re on a wonderful, wild ride and part of the fun is engaging constantly in refreshing the undergraduate educational experience to try to keep up while maintaining due regard for certain values that might relate in some fundamental way to what it means to be human.”
The director of the Campus Honors Program for the past decade, Michelson has been on the UI faculty for 30 years and has garnered a number of awards and honors for teaching and scholarship. These include awards from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for excellence in undergraduate advising and undergraduate teaching, the Robert Schneider Award for service to the English department, a Fulbright fellowship and a Hewlett Foundation fellowship. He is the author of the Norton Anthology of American Literature Web site and Instructor’s Guide, and he serves on the advisory board for the “American Passages” video series produced by the Annenberg Foundation and Oregon Public Broadcasting.