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Teaching experience at Penn

August 23, 2016

When I came to graduate school, I was excited to learn about both scientific research and science teaching. I specifically chose my thesis lab knowing that my mentors would support me in this pursuit. During my first three years of graduate school, I was a teaching assistant (TA) for a graduate-level survey course and participated in outreach programs. But then I felt stuck – there was so much more to being a successful instructor I felt I needed learn, but no clear way to continue to cultivate those skills.



If I’ve learned one thing in graduate school, it is this: whether you are perfecting a new technique in the laboratory or trying to figure out how to design your own course, it is always best to seek out expert help. Luckily, Penn is full of unbelievable resources of expert knowledge, particularly with regards to teaching. The first expert source I encountered was an extremely thoughtful professor who was very open about the difficulties he faced as a teacher. While I was a TA for his course, he taught me that being a good science teacher is similar to being a good experimentalist. A good science teacher is constantly thinking about, testing, and collecting feedback on new teaching methods to improve their courses. And, like bench work, failure is a very natural part of this process.


Another great expert resource I encountered was Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL, Many members of its staff hold science Ph.D.s, and they provide excellent, FREE programs for all graduate students at Penn. Through CTL, you can earn a Teaching Certificate on your transcript, or take one of their awesome mini courses on teaching (yes, they exist). Even if you don’t think you are particularly interested in teaching, many of the skills discussed in these courses can be translated to other professions. For example, the experience of learning to organize a presentation “like a teacher” dramatically improved my own scientific presentations.


If you find yourself absolutely loving the experience of helping students reach that “ah-ha” moment in their learning, CTL also offers a fantastic program for graduate students who are committed to a career in teaching.  Each graduate group or department may nominate one student to apply for the Graduate Fellowship for Teaching Excellence. During the 2015-16 academic year, I had the privilege of representing CAMB as a CTL Fellow. As part of the program, I met regularly with other Fellows from departments across Penn’s campus (Education, History, English, Engineering, etc.), many of whom regularly taught entire courses during graduate school. The experience of discussing teaching topics with these “expert peers” helped me anticipate many of the obstacles I will face when teaching my first course.


As a Fellow, I had the opportunity to design and implement my own “lessons” in a manner that went well beyond my experiences as a TA. I organized seven teaching workshops for BGS students during the 2015-16 academic year (many thanks to those of you who participated!). I also led one university-wide workshop each semester. During the planning of these workshops, I was forced to decide which topics were most important to my audience, what I wanted my audience to learn about these topics, and what activities I would use to help them successfully master this new knowledge.  Having the opportunity to practice these skills before feeling the pressure of a real classroom situation was invaluable.


Penn is a community of experts. I encourage you take advantage of the opportunities available here, no matter what your passion is! If, like me, teaching is your passion, seek out mentors who think critically about their teaching methods. Ask them questions. Be their TA.  Volunteer to give a guest lecture in one of their classes (particularly for undergraduate courses). In my experience, teaching is something that takes a lot of practice to get it right, so graduate school is a fantastic time to start!


The 2016-2017 CAMB CTL Fellow is Rebecca Rivard. Thanks to Rebecca, CAMB will have teaching-related workshops held throughout the coming academic year!

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