New Center at New Mexico Tech Focuses on Student Learning, March 8, 2006

by Valerie Kimble

SOCORRO, N.M., March 8, 2006 – Improving the quality of the student learning experience is the primary goal of New Mexico Tech’s new Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL).

The fledgling center was launched last summer by a team of Tech faculty and administrators, following a conference they had attended at St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minn.

The conference was sponsored by The Collaboration for the Advancement of College Teaching and Learning, whose professional affiliates have led several workshops at New Mexico Tech.

“Initially our mission was to work out strategies on assessment of student learning,” said Dr. Scott Zeman, associate professor of history at Tech. “But what we were really interested in doing, and the whole point of assessment, is to improve the educational experience for our students.”

The team left Minnesota last June with a blueprint for a center committed to helping support and encourage innovative teaching and learning. Those plans, with moral and financial support from Dr. Daniel H. López, university president; and with the endorsement of Dr. Peter F. Gerity, Vice President for Academic Affairs, resulted in the CITL.

“The creation of the CITL reflects the professional dedication and commitment of our faculty and staff to enhancing the quality of the learning experience at New Mexico Tech,” said Gerity.

“We are very pleased with progress made by the team, which has already experienced success in its first year, and we look forward to its continuation and expansion in coming years,” he said.

The center has a fully integrated website (www.nmt.edu/~citl). Zeman is one of the five founding members, the primary CITL contact, and also serves as the university’s Faculty Development Leader.

Dr. Carole Yee, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Students; Dr. Dal Symes, Director of the Skeen Library; and faculty members Dr. Tom Engler (Petroleum Engineering) and Dr. Tom Kieft (Biology) are CITL’s other co-founders.

The group meets for weekly brown bag lunches in the Skeen Library, “and anyone can join us,” Zeman said.

“The most innovative part, to me, of the NMT CITL, is that the center will work with any faculty who wish to work with them, thereby focusing the workshops, discussions, and other opportunities to the specific needs of our faculty,” said Yee. “Also,” she continued, “those faculty can learn to embed assessment of student learning in their course designs.”

CITL, through Zeman, at last month’s meeting of the New Mexico Tech Faculty Senate announced the winner of its first-ever Innovative Teaching Grant. From the nine proposals submitted by individual faculty, the center chose a proposal for a new astrobiology course to be taught this fall (please see related story).

Faculty members Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman, Physics; Dr. Penelope Boston, Earth and Environmental Science; and Kieft from Biology will team-teach the multi-disciplinary class. The $4,000 grant will provide funds for supplies and guest lecturers.

CITL also offers a departmental grant, but received no applications this year.

Last fall, the center sponsored talks by recipients of the 2005 Outstanding Teacher and Outstanding Researcher awards: Dr. Clinton Richardson, Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Dr. William McIntosh, Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, respectively.

Dr. Robert Cormack, professor of psychology, the 2004 Distinguished Teacher Award recipient, gave a presentation on March 1. The CITL will host Dr. Jill Buckley with the Petroleum Recovery Research Center, the 2004 Distinguished Researcher Award recipient, at 4 p.m. on April 5 in Workman 101.

A CITL-sponsored workshop in February on designing courses to help students learn offered practical ways to engage students, said Zeman.

It was led by Dr. Karl Smith, professor of engineering at the University of Minnesota, and hand-picked by The Collaboration to give the workshop to Tech’s science and engineering faculty.

And it was well received, said Zeman.

“We learned practical ways to engage students as active learners, how to keep students accountable,” said Zeman. “Students must be actively engaged in a real way for learning to take place.

“We were encouraged to take tools from the workshop and tailor them to our own needs, our own vision and goals of a particular course,” he said. “There is no single model that works for everyone.”

Among the ideas discussed were students working in groups or in pairs, journals, in-class discussions – anything, Zeman said, to break the traditional educational model of the professor pouring knowledge into a student’s head.

“We want to move away from the concept of the professor as lecturer and the students as passive recipients,” he said. “But how can we do that? That’s the challenge.”

Future plans for the CITL include office space and a small library. “The theme is to start small and find ways to grow,” he said. “We want the center to be a resource for faculty who choose to take advantage of it.”

A teaching academy on campus is another goal of Zeman and company. “Faculty could become members based on set criteria, such as attending a certain number of teaching workshops,” he said.

The concept is based on a model developed at New Mexico State University, Zeman added. “They’ve given us some good ideas,” he said.

“The key is to keep trying.”