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April 18, 2012

University joins national effort to improve science, engineering education

Rochester joins other top institutions in Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning

The University is joining a national effort to develop a new generation of college-level science and engineering faculty.

The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL), which began in 2003 with a handful of universities, was recently expanded to include 25 of the nation’s top educational institutions.

Supported by the National Science Foundation and headquartered at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, CIRTL’s mission is to improve the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at colleges across the country.

While college-level science instructors traditionally come from the ranks of graduate students, their preparation for the classroom typically consists of a few semesters working as teaching assistants, often with little mentoring.

CIRTL approaches teaching in the same way educators approach research,” says Wendi Heinzelman, dean of graduate studies for Arts, Sciences & Engineering. “It comes down to solving problems.”

A foundational CIRTL concept is that improving one’s teaching boils down to the key question, “What have my students learned?” That question, says Robert Mathieu, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of astronomy and cofounder of the center, can be addressed in each classroom by the experimental method familiar to scientists: hypothesis generation, experiment, observation, analysis, and improvement. Mathieu calls it “teaching-as-research.”

As a CIRTL member, Rochester will have access to the teaching and learning innovations of other network members as well as a platform for sharing its own successes, including 1) the peer-led workshop model, which actively engages students through small-group problem-solving; 2) the WeBWorK online homework tool for math and science; and 3) diversity-oriented approaches for creating an inclusive environment on campus.

Diversity is considered both a challenge and opportunity for college-level science teachers. As graduate students become faculty, they will increasingly encounter students from diverse racial, ethnic, national, and educational backgrounds whose learning experiences may vary widely. One goal of CIRTL is to create college faculty who are able to use student diversity to enhance the education of all students.

The Rochester CIRTL program will be housed at the University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, which promotes educational excellence through a range of programs for faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students.

The growth of the CIRTL network, Mathieu says, will give the program a much larger national footprint and the ability to influence many more of the nation’s future science faculty.

A full list of member universities is available at

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