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Graduate enthusiasm vital in teaching, deans' panel says

STANFORD -- Far from being a weak link in the university's teaching structure, graduate students can play a vital role in undergraduate instruction and course innovation, a panel of Stanford University deans said Monday, May 6.

"Apprentice faculty offer students a diversity of viewpoints - - that is one of the strengths of a research university," said Gary Ernst, dean of the School of Earth Sciences.

"Innovative teaching may mean that we should utilize the talents of graduate students more, not less," he said.

Ernst and two other deans spoke as part of Teaching Week, May 2-9, on campus. About 30 people attended the session, which was held in Annenberg Auditorium. Jean Fetter, dean of undergraduate admissions, chaired the panel.

In his own school, Ernst said, a graduate student was the catalyst for a stimulating, yearlong series of lectures on the environmental sciences. Graduate students also were behind the school's recent "Sales of the Century," rockhound flea markets that will fund a three-week geology field trip to the Alps this September.

Ewart Thomas, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, echoed Ernst's praise of graduate student innovation and enthusiasm.

"There is a side benefit as well," he said. "Graduate students can serve as mentors and role models for undergraduates."

Graduate students also play an important role in teaching in the School of Engineering, although usually in advanced courses, James Gibbons, dean of engineering, said.

In basic introductory courses, he said, it is vitally important that senior faculty be involved.

"This sets a tone for departments that is critical," he said. "With teaching, it's the peer environment within the department that counts."

The deans described several other key factors in the improvement of teaching at Stanford. Among them:

  • Cooperation across schools. Ernst gave the example of the new earth systems major, which will be run by the School of Earth Sciences but will involve chemists, biologists and economists from schools across the campus. "It's our planet," he said, "but we've had to have cooperation across departments and schools to make this work."
  • Evaluation and rewards. Gibbons noted that all faculty raises in the School of Engineering are partly dependent on student teaching evaluations conducted by the Tau Beta Pi engineering society. Thomas suggested that endowed professorships might be reserved for outstanding teachers as well.
  • Encouraging undergraduate research. This has proved difficult in the School of Engineering, where faculty sometimes work with hazardous materials, Gibbons said. In cases where undergraduates have worked in labs, "some marvelous things have happened," and department chairs are trying to spread the word.



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