For decades, graduate students have moved from the role of student to professor with little training on what it takes to be an effective educator.

Now, with the creation of the Graduate Teaching Scholar Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, graduate students can hone their teaching skills and build their confidence to become inspiring and well-rounded educators, mentors, and leaders.

“Preparation in research has long been the focus of graduate education,” said Susan Sumner, associate dean and director of academic programs. “This initiative raises the bar for future professors. We want our students to be as bold and creative in the classroom as they are in their research.”

These days, with the emergence of new technologies and software, college educators must demonstrate a wider array of talents than their predecessors. They are entering a fiercely competitive job market where employers  — as well as students’ parents —  are increasingly interested in the quality of teaching provided by colleges and universities.

In response to these demands, the new program opened its doors in August to seven scholars, each of whom has a faculty member as a mentor. Together, they will explore the latest theories and techniques in education, prepare lectures and assignments, integrate software technology into their teaching practices, and learn how to write grants.

“By sharing each other’s experiences, students and mentors can develop critical thinking skills, learn different approaches to teaching, and become better communicators,” said Donna Westfall-Rudd, an assistant professor of agricultural and extension education who helped develop the program.

At the start of every year, professors in each of the college’s departments nominate graduate applicants and a faculty committee will select the scholars. The college is funding the students’ full tuition and stipend for the 2012-13 school year to kick off the program. Starting in 2013, the college will share the costs with the students’ respective departments.

The inaugural students like the program because it strikes a balance between research and teaching.

Dan Tekiela of Wood Dale, Ill., a graduate student in plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, recalled the hours spent in many college classes in which he loved the material, but was frustrated when he had to teach it to himself.

Now, with the help of the Graduate Teaching Scholar Program, he says he hopes that he will be an inspiring educator who his future students will remember as an excellent professor.

Courtney Vengrin of Christiansburg, Va., a doctoral student majoring in agricultural and extension education, agreed.

“I feel so lucky to be part of an innovative group of students and faculty members who want to expand their horizons,” she said. “Without this program I’d be terrified to teach at a university.”

Other students in the program are:

  • Matt Schroeder of Phoenix, Md., in food science and technology
  • Mara Grossman of Blacksburg, Va., in horticulture
  • Jason Smith of Lovettsville, Va.,  in animal and poultry sciences
  • Gabrielle Fundaro of Christiansburg, Va., in human nutrition, foods and exercise
  • Liyun Ye of Jiangsu Province, China, in food science and technology




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