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Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail:

CREATE makes research clearer, more compelling

As she puts together notes for a freshman lecture on ecology, Professor X is looking for some exciting research that will help to bring the material alive.

She turns to a new Stanford website ( and, presto, finds a cutting-edge study of ant behavior that is being performed just over the hill at Jasper Ridge.

Professor X calls Nathan Sanders, the doctoral student in biological sciences who is tracking invasive Argentine ants, and invites him to talk to her class the following day. She knows ahead of time that he'll be happy to give a presentation about his work.

This is no millennium dream scene. Thanks to CREATE, a teaching and research initiative that is a joint venture of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and the Stanford Learning Laboratory (SLL), advanced graduate students like Sanders are the newest players in Stanford's efforts to forge links between research and teaching.

CREATE ­ Creating Research Examples Across the Teaching Enterprise ­ was piloted last spring by Michele Marincovich, assistant vice provost and director of CTL, and Richard Reis, a consulting professor in electrical and mechanical engineering who is director for academic partnerships at SLL. They helped graduate students from 13 departments develop written descriptions of their research that could be posted on the web and used as a resource by the campus community. In exchange, the students learned how to write concisely and compellingly about their work ­ skills that will be helpful as they complete dissertations and grant proposals and compile teaching portfolios.

"Given the demands on everyone's time these days, we've been concerned with the problem of how to encourage faculty, lecturers and graduate students to do more to integrate their teaching and research," Marincovich says. "We've asked ourselves, what are the things they do in their research that they could carry over into their teaching? And ­ the harder challenge ­ what are the things they do in their teaching that could save them time and help to jumpstart their research?"

As he considered those questions, Reis thought the notion of leverage could apply.

"If you see teaching and research in conflict, research will win out every time here," he says. "But if you think of teaching and research as leveraging agents, then there ought to be ways to infuse more inquiry and an investigative mode into introductory classes, and perhaps change to some extent the nature of the undergraduate experience."

Marincovich and Reis sent out letters in March to 25 graduate students who were within two years of finishing their doctorates and who also had demonstrated a keen interest in polishing their teaching skills. Sixteen students volunteered for the CREATE pilot program ­ eight from engineering departments and physical sciences, and eight from the humanities and social sciences ­ and received $100 plus a year's subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education for their participation.

Each student was asked to write a statement that described her or his research. It had to be understandable to freshmen taking an introductory course in the field, and it also had to explain why the work was important.

"We reasoned that 1,000 words was long enough to require some substance and some description of what they were doing, and of what kinds of questions they were answering," Reis says.

Equally important was the "why."

"Many graduate students who have dedicated two years to a particular project often neglect to think about why anyone else should be interested in their research," Marincovich adds. "So we wanted them to answer the questions, 'Even if we understood your work, why should we care about it? Why is it important and compelling?'"

To help shape and focus their research statements, the graduate students were encouraged to think about describing their work in four stages of "talks."

The first couple of sentences of their statements would constitute an "elevator talk" ­ a brief response to the question "So, what is your research about?" that could be offered in an elevator ride between several floors.

Students were urged to think about the second paragraph of their statements as a "hallway talk" ­ a slightly longer response to the above question. For the fuller "office talk" version and the more complete "seminar talk," which would constitute the remainder of their statements, students were encouraged to make a compelling case for their research.

The first drafts were farmed out for review among the students, with each one assigned to read two papers ­ one in science or engineering, and one in the humanities or social sciences. A physicist, for example, might have to decipher the work of a student in religious studies, or an engineer might look at the work of a specialist in communications. The students, who had not met each other, returned their comments via e­mail.

"They took a lot of time with the reviews, and in some cases the comments were almost as long as the original statements," Marincovich said.

As they guided second and third drafts of the graduate students' research statements, Marincovich and Reis drew on the comments of their peers to encourage the students to make their work more accessible to a wider audience. The title of one medical sciences essay, for example, which started out as "Investigating Cytoskeletal Dynamics in the Development of Epithelial Cell Polarity," ultimately became "How Do Cells Know Up from Down?"

Marincovich and Reis presented the initial results of the CREATE project to 35 engineering faculty members from universities nationwide who convened at Stanford this summer for a workshop funded by the National Science Foundation. They also will make a presentation to the American Association of Higher Education.

Last month Fred Stout, CTL training coordinator, used the CREATE template to help six students in the urban studies track of Honors College jumpstart their senior honors essays.

By mid-October Marincovich and Reis hope to have between 50 and 60 more graduate students writing research statements to add to the growing website database. They have contacted the chairs of six departments ­ civil and environmental engineering, electrical engineering, chemistry, economics, English and political science ­ to ask if their faculties could nominate advanced graduate students for an expanded CREATE project in fall quarter.

"We hope that by doing this early in their careers, graduate students will learn to recast their knowledge into something they can teach well, and that they'll also maintain a learner's perspective on the material," Marincovich says. "The whole core of teaching is to make ideas available, and we look at this as a very solid pedagogical exercise."


By Diane Manuel

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