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New teachers, new methods, new learners

But dedication, passion and enthusiasm still matter

By BRIAN WALLHEIMER

Food Microbiology has a reputation for being a tough course, and for her first teaching assignment, Haley Oliver knew she had her work cut out for her.

It's the sort of course that students will fret over — get in, get out and get through it. Add to it students' unfamiliarity with Oliver and she was sure they would keep their heads down.

Photo Illustration by Tom Campbell and Dan Annarino

Agricultural economics assistant professor Roman Keeney connects with his graduate students in the classroom and on the computer.

"I'll never forget my first day standing in the front of the classroom," said Oliver, an assistant professor of food science. "I hadn't been that nervous in a long time."

Oliver started that first class with a peace offering, but it was clear the students weren't comfortable yet.

"I had 58 students, so I bought 60 doughnuts. I tried to show them it was all right," Oliver said. "I walked out with 48 doughnuts."

As the semester wore on, through papers, tests and lab work, Oliver felt that she was getting through to students. She had undergraduate students working in her lab. They were asking questions in class. Grades were good.

But there was only one way to know for sure if she'd reached them.

On the last day, Oliver brought in another 60 doughnuts, a somewhat less traditional metric for measuring success as a teacher.

"At the end of the semester, I had four left," Oliver said with a grin.

Success.

This isn't your father's classroom

University teachers are walking into classrooms that are often much different than the ones they populated. Beyond the technological changes that are incorporated in learning today, students are asking to be taught in a different way.

"I've found that students want to be engaged through in-class exercises that relate to the subject matter," said John Graveel, BS '76, MS '79, PhD '84, then interim associate dean and director of academic programs for Purdue Agriculture. "You've got to get students actively involved and teach subject matter at the same time."

Graveel remembers the days when teachers lectured and students rarely had the time to look up while furiously scribbling down notes that would be essential to their success in class.

"When I started teaching about 30 years ago, students were content to sit and take notes," Graveel said. "That is not the case anymore."

Now, most teachers use PowerPoint, and their presentations can be downloaded before or after class. Those equations, theories and statistics can be found on the Internet. Memorization is all but unnecessary for many students, except maybe on tests and quizzes.

"Now at the click of a button, the information is there. Students come to class without notebooks and pens sometimes," Graveel said. "If they do take notes, they're listening, digesting information and only writing down a few points."

What those students want, Graveel said, is an understanding of how their classes will relate to life after college.

"They want to know how to use this information. They want the big picture," Graveel said. "We're basically teaching higher-order learning skills."

It's no wonder then, Graveel said, that some of the most successful teachers at Purdue today are those who are still getting their feet wet. Those new, young faculty members remember how they wanted to learn, and that can bubble over into their own teaching.

"The key thing in teaching today is enthusiasm," Graveel said. "You see that a lot in new faculty."

Enthusiasm is contagious

Carmen Wickware, a junior from Terre Haute, Ind., said she sensed that enthusiasm from Oliver and another teacher, Jenna Rickus. The enthusiasm from Oliver moved Wickware to abandon her pharmacy major and change to food science.

"Microbiology was not my first choice," Wickware said. "But Dr. Oliver just seemed so excited about it that I got interested."

Wickware has had her share of classes where a teacher gets up in front of the room, lectures for an hour and walks out. She said Oliver and Rickus aren't like that, and that matters.

"Dr. Rickus is very involved with us, very hands-on," Wickware said. "I like being in class and being engaged in the lecture. We asked lots of questions and felt like we were taking part."

Oliver said having been a student not so long ago, she always wanted to feel valued. She said making sure her students feel valued isn't that difficult.

"We're just being human," she said.

On Rickus' desk sits one of her class textbooks: Bioinformatics: A Practical Guide to the Analysis of Genes and Proteins. She read the title out loud: "It couldn't be more interesting," she quipped sarcastically.

Rickus, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering and biomedical engineering, said it takes skill to strike the right balance between teaching a class that students find boring and one that inspires them to want to learn more.

"What inspires me on how I teach now is looking back at what I wish I had as an undergraduate," Rickus said.

What her classes lacked, Rickus said, was the big picture. She wanted to know how the knowledge she was gaining would help her solve real problems.

Rickus found it in summer camps and independent reading, but she's hoping to make sure that big-picture philosophy is present in her classrooms today.

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