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New center aims to improve teaching methods at Rice

By Brooke Bullock     10/4/12 7:00pm

Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson announced the creation of the Center for Teaching Excellence and the appointment of its faculty director, professor of computation and applied mathematics Steven Cox, at the Student Association meeting on Sept. 24. Cox said the CTE fellows have been selected and initial discussions have begun, but no plans have been finalized yet. 

The center will be open to all of the Rice community, including faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, staff and administration, Cox said. According to Cox, the CTE plans to offer seminars and workshops in innovative teaching methods. 

"CTE is led by a faculty director and a board of fellows with demonstrated excellence in teaching. This group builds the foundation for programming about teaching and learning at Rice. CTE fellows include faculty such as the George R. Brown Award and Salgo Award winners and other faculty nominated by their chairs and deans," the CTE mission states. 

The CTE currently consists of 16 fellows, including Cox, from all schools except the Shepherd School of Music, Hutchinson said. The selection committee, which consisted of 11 active Piper Professorship winners from Rice University as well as a representative from the Faculty Senate, also tried to select a group that was diverse in years of teaching experience and departments and that included tenured and non-tenured professors, Hutchinson said. According to Hutchinson, half of the fellows will serve a two-year term and half will serve a three-year term, so that half the fellows will rotate out and new fellows will come in. 

"The goal is to get as many faculty members involved as possible while still maintaining a workable size," Hutchinson said. 

Associate Dean of Undergraduates Brian Gibson said one of his hopes is to use the center to help train academic fellows and mentors for the one-on-one and small-group tutoring they do. 

Jones College Head Fellow Claire Taylor said that the opportunity to learn from some of the best teachers available would be invaluable to mentors and fellows. 

"Rice is full of bright minds, but it also has some of the most well-equipped teachers in the world," Taylor, a senior, said. "If the Fellows and Mentors could learn to implement their successful techniques in a more intimate setting, I think that would be immensely beneficial for Rice's students."

 Taylor said the center would also be helpful for teachers of student-taught courses, many of whom have never run a classroom before. Cox said training STC teachers is one of his own goals, as well as training students who work in labs and offer assistance on problem sets. 

"The better we do at training them, the more visible we will be," Cox said. 

According to Hutchinson, the CTE will also help students interested in long-term careers in teaching through the workshops and seminars, which will be open to students as well as faculty, staff and administrators. 

McMurtry College junior and student in Rice's Undergraduate Teacher Education Program Francis Iyer said the center would be helpful if it allowed for practical experience. 

"I definitely think I could benefit from the new center, especially as I'm studying to become a high school teacher, but it does depend on whether the programs end up being geared more towards faculty at Rice or students," Iyer said. "In the teaching certification program, we're always looking for more opportunities to teach in a realistic environment, so if the center offered something that could help facilitate that, I would definitely take advantage of it."

Hutchinson said so far, there are only faculty fellows, but he and the CTE will continue to ask how students can become more involved, both as beneficiaries and as part of the CTE itself. Student Association President Sanjula Jain announced at the Oct. 1 SA meeting that a task force is being formed to gather student opinions about potential programs at the CTE. 

The CTE has its initial funding from an extended budget Hutchinson requested last year, he said. However, he said he hopes a donor will grant an endowment, as many universities have similar programs named for their endower. Cox said the CTE will also be pursuing grants to help raise funds. 

The CTE fellows will meet on a monthly basis to develop the center's programs this semester, Cox said. 

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