I recently had the pleasure of interviewing UCAT’s new Post-Doctoral Researcher, Dr. Jennifer Shalini Collins. Jennifer assists UCAT with research projects that help us better understand and improve our practices and programs related to supporting the teaching community at The Ohio State University.
Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Science Education from Oregon State University, and a Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Kentucky. Before joining the UCAT team, she served as a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Instructional Change in Postsecondary Education (CRICPE) at Western Michigan University.
With a career rooted in postsecondary STEM education, Jennifer’s research is broadly centered on understanding teaching and its improvement across research universities. Her most recent research focuses on examining the undergraduate STEM education and faculty professional development. Jennifer also has 8+ years of teaching experience that including teaching undergraduate chemistry courses and graduate level science pedagogy course at University of Kentucky, Bluegrass Community College, Linn Benton Community College, and Oregon State University.
Through her work, Jennifer appreciates the opportunity to communicate enthusiasm about educational transformation. She also strives to support faculty in creating a learning environment where all students are academic challenged, actively engaged, and professionally prepared to achieve their career goals.
She moved to the U.S. with her family from Pune, India when she was 16 years old. After completing high school in Wilmore, Kentucky she began a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at Asbury University. During her time as a college student, she describes living at home and developing a growing sympathy for commuter students who do not often have a space to sit and work quietly on campus and who also have to juggle the expenses of transport and eating on campus nearly daily. And because of these issues, she points out that many commuter students face challenges in terms of feeling a sense of belonging, engaging in academic experiences, and navigating the social aspects of college life.
Given her unique experiences as a college student and her undergraduate teaching experiences, it is of little surprise that during the course of her Master’s degree she fostered an interest in improving college student success. One day an email flashed across her screen advertising a course called “Understanding the Millennial Student.” As a millennial herself, Jennifer jumped at the opportunity to take this course, promising her advisor that she would be able to manage a full course load with an extra course. During the class, she learned more about the growing body of scholarship related to teaching, educational development and, particularly, how to address the barriers that students, particularly from underrepresented populations, experience in higher education. She began to think through a number of questions, such as how students view STEM classrooms and how these perspectives influence their engagement; why STEM courses are challenging to both teach and to learn; and how teaching and the classroom environment impact student success.
While describing her professional journey of researching undergraduate STEM education, she said, “I think it is important for graduate students to invest in opportunities and experiences that will help them identify and confirm their career goals. Pursue volunteer positions, attend campus events, attend research presentations, shadow classrooms, and build connections with people outside your discipline. There is so much you learn about yourself and the world around you from others. That is what I did.” She continued, “Find the problem you are passionate to solve and let that problem guide how you move forward in your career.”
As she sought solutions to the problems she had begun mulling over while teaching and, in particular, during her course on millennial students, she connected with Dr. Jana Bouwma-Gearhart, a postsecondary STEM education researcher, who then became her trusted mentor and advisor. Dr. Jana Bouwma-Gearhart’s research focused on postsecondary STEM education, faculty development, and institutional improvement. All research areas that aligned with Jennifer’s interests. When Dr. Bouwma-Gearhart took a faculty position at Oregon State University (the “other OSU,” as Jennifer calls it), Jennifer followed along and completed her doctorate there in Science Education, with am emphasis in postsecondary STEM education. She attributes much of her academic success to her advisor. She said, “Jana believed in me and from day one she worked closely with me to become a better educator, researcher, and writer. I will always be grateful for the opportunities, resources, and experiences she provided to help me become who I am today.”
Jennifer has since served as a Research Associate at Western Michigan University’s Center for Research on Instructional Change in Postsecondary Education (CRICPE) where she worked on a federally-funded project broadly focused on driving institutional transformation to support student success in higher education.
Jennifer speaks passionately about the importance of postsecondary institutions becoming student-ready, instead of focusing on seeking ideal college ready students. This shifting paradigm, she explains, emerges when “faculty, staff, and administrators work together as a community of learners to advance the mission of the institution while keeping student success at the center of their work.”
Jennifer said, “I am grateful for the opportunity to work with the UCAT team on developing programs focused on introducing instructors to effective teaching practices grounded in how students learn.” She is currently part of UCAT’s Course Design Institute in which she is learning about the tools and processes involved in designing a course. She recommends the CDI to educators interested in designing a course that is more effective and student-centered.
In the course of our conversation, I found myself wondering about how we can successfully build student-ready institutions, especially given the diversity of students that enter the gates of the university each year. Before I could ask the question, she explained that a huge pillar of her research focuses on inclusion and building classrooms in which marginalized students are actively engaged and feel confident to share their perspectives. “Much of this work,” she explained, “returns to how you make students feel. Faculty are, of course, content experts, but how they deliver the content influences how students learn. It is important for faculty to believe that all students in their class our capable of excellence and acknowledge their responsibility in creating a learning environment that makes all students feel empowered to learn.”
As we closed our conversation, she said, “In teaching, you know you have succeeded when you have reached the most marginalized students.” This philosophy certainly seems to breathe life into her professional goals as she translates education research and theory into broader praxis and I, for one, am left inspired to learn more about what it truly means to build a student-ready institution.
To read more about what it takes to become a student-ready institution, Jennifer recommends reading the book: Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success, by Tia Brown Mc Nair, Susan Albertine, Michelle Asha Cooper, Nicole Mc Donald and Thomas Major Jr.
Blog contributor Kelly Jo Fulkerson-Dikuua is a Graduate Consultant at UCAT and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of African American and African Studies at Ohio State.