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Philosophy of Teaching
Elizabeth Riter
Graduate Teaching Associate
Department of Civil Engineering
Winner of the 2011 Graduate Associate Teaching Award

Passion and preparation are the key factors on which I focus my teaching.  Showing passion for teaching and helping students and being prepared, organized and ready for any situation, has helped me to run a successful classroom.  In my opinion, a successful classroom consists of eager, enthusiastic students ready to participate in discussion and work together with their fellow classmates to achieve a common goal.  This classroom consists of curriculum that is not only challenging, but also rewarding.  The students in this classroom feel comfortable and confident in asking questions and seeking guidance.  My success as a teacher is not met until all my students are provided with the opportunity to succeed.

My experience in teaching has mainly been in introductory engineering courses.  Introduction to Engineering is a two-course series, which emphasizes the fundamentals of engineering including teamwork, graphics, programming, multidisciplinary lab experiences, a design/build project, ethics, and project management.  I work as a teaching assistant to an instructor and also have an undergraduate teaching assistant to help with grading.   My tasks include helping students at all class and lab sessions, holding office hours to answer any additional questions, running the lab, grading all lab assignments, and providing feedback to the students.  For most students, this is their first engineering course.  Therefore, helping students in class and lab is the most important responsibility I have.  The subject content is usually unfamiliar to them, so helping them through problems in class, like creating a 3D part in Inventor or writing a matrix program in Matlab, is essential to their future in engineering.  The material we cover in these classes teaches them how to problem-solve and use programs.  This content will better prepare them for most of their future classes and even future careers.  Sometimes it can be quite a challenge to get every student to understand this new material, but with passion and enthusiasm for teaching, relentless effort often leads to positive results.

In addition to my passion for teaching, I am passionate about helping others.  I have faced many real hardships in my life.  As difficult as they were to endure, they have only made me a stronger, more capable person and teacher.  Going through new, difficult experiences has helped me to help others in similar situations.  Whether they are merely new to engineering and are taking difficult courses, or if they are going through depression due to the death of a family member, I have the compassion and understanding to help them through their hardships.  It can be easier to get through difficult times when one has a mentor or teacher who not only understands the problem, but can relate to it as well.  Last spring, I had a female student who missed a few days of class.  After speaking with her to make sure everything was ok, she informed me that she had been at the doctor for depression.  I was very lenient with her in regards to assignments and attendance.  I provided her with the necessary resources, including consultation services.  Additionally, I made sure to acknowledge her every day and to give her that extra attention to keep her motivated.  She ended up doing very well in the class.  I’ve seen her since then, and she seems very happy and confident in her engineering classes.  This is where my passion comes from.  One of my biggest passions in life is to help others.  I do this through teaching new things, whether it is teaching a student a course or training a new employee for a position or guiding a person through a lifestyle change.  I want to help others by making a significant impact in their life.

My passions for teaching and helping others have also led to a passion for education.  I think that continual learning can be so beneficial in all facets of life.  By continuing learning in the academic realm, one can learn the current or new practices in teaching.  I always want to know how to improve my teaching style.  By attending seminars, workshops, and conferences, reading current journals, and attending sessions taught by others, I will continue to learn about teaching practices.  This past summer, I attended the annual ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education) conference in Louisville, Kentucky.  I went to a session where Northeastern University presented a paper entitled, “Successful Student: Smart or Tough?” (ASEE, 2010).  This presentation focused on freshmen engineering students with grit.  They defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”  This concept helped me develop a new level of understanding and depth to my teaching: rewarding students who tried really hard and saw the results.  Sometimes in engineering, we forget that engineering doesn’t come easy to everyone.  We forget that there are different types of students.  There are students who are extremely smart and understand things quickly and can produce outstanding results with ease.  There are also the gritty students, who do not grasp the concepts quite so easily or quickly, but work extremely hard to also produce outstanding results.  As educators, we need to remember to recognize and reward both of these types of students.  After seeing this presentation during the summer, I came back to school fall quarter with a new outlook on student success.  In several instances, I made it a point to motivate and reward students by recognizing all their efforts regardless of the ease by which the results came.  Additionally, I made sure to comfort students by telling them about this idea that although it may take them more time and effort to achieve the desired results, the success in the end will be that much more rewarding to them.

Along with passion, preparation also seems necessary in the development of any skill.  Being prepared and organized helps things run more smoothly in any circumstance.  It makes you spend less time catching up in the moment and more time available to help or learn or teach.  Through my experiences, I have learned that time is used more efficiently when teachers and leaders are prepared and organized.  Students seem to take more information in when it is expressed to them in an organized manner than when it is presented in a random or unstructured manner.  I prepare myself for teaching by reviewing materials (lectures and procedures) and doing any work (lab experiments and assignments) before the students attempt it.  I then note any potential obstacles the students may face and do my best to give them the tools necessary to overcome such problems.  For example, I created or assisted in the creation of the curriculum documents used for the first-year engineering students in a new quarter-long design/build project for their 2nd Introduction to Engineering course.  Prior to creating these documents, I ran each lab myself to spot any possible issues or areas of confusion.  For each lab experiment, I then prepared a PowerPoint lecture, a lab procedure, and grading guidelines with a rubric for the assigned out-of-class work.  Engineering students are often visual learners, so they sometimes have challenges understanding a procedure or lecture provided in words alone.  Therefore in the lab procedure and lecture, I added helpful figures to clarify certain concepts or set-ups in the experiment wherever possible.  In the procedure or lecture, I also made note of any issues I had in running the lab or helpful hints to help them through possible obstacles.  For their assignments, I created a rubric before the assignment.  So when I created the guidelines for the assignments, it was clear to the students exactly what I was looking for and in what format.  These documents have also proved to be extremely helpful to other instructors and teaching associates new to this design/build project.  By preparing for class, I provide an organized, atmosphere conducive to learning not only for my students, but for my colleagues as well.

In addition to teaching first-year engineering students, I am also a graduate administrative assistant to the program coordinator of the Engineering Scholars program, a living/learning community.  This is a unique opportunity to play such a special role in these students’ lives, because I not only teach them about engineering in the classroom, but I also help them to be socially responsible and involved in the community outside of the classroom.  I coordinate co-curricular events like assisting the building of houses with Habitat for Humanity or volunteering at the COSI Engineering Science Day with my students.  This allows me to have even more of an impact on their lives by teaching them about how they can help others through their knowledge in engineering.  I chose to pursue teaching in engineering, because I want to make an impact on people’s lives.  I want to not only help them to learn and understand the curriculum of introductory engineering concepts, but I also want them to learn how to apply these concepts in order to successfully help others now and in their future.  I do this with passion and preparation.

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