July 23, 2019 | 73° F

SEBS Academic Forum Explores undergraduate Issues

Photo by Tianyun Lin |

Mary Emenike, director of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Support Programs at Rutgers, spoke at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Academic Forum meeting held yesterday at the Cook Student Center.

While most are familiar with the acronym “TA,” a lesser-known acronym at Rutgers is “LA”: learning assistant.

The Learning Assistant Program was one of many topics Mary Emenike, director of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Support Programs at Rutgers, discussed at yesterday’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Academic Forum meeting in the Cook Student Center.

The Learning Assistant Program at Rutgers, which is modelled after a similar initiative at the University of Colorado, is currently helping 85 undergraduate students develop their teaching and leadership skills, Emenike said.

When undergraduate students enter this program, which is offered on all campuses and takes place twice a semester, they learn to facilitate study groups, teach in recitation sections with a graduate teaching assistant and lead discussions during lectures. 

“We have this right now in Chemical Engineer Analysis, where four learning assistants come into the lecture on Tuesdays and work with the students on ‘clicker’ problems after the class ends,” Emenike said. 

While teaching assistants manage the classroom and grade work, learning assistants help facilitate discussions, she said. 

LAs traditionally provide aid to students in math or science courses. However, Emenike said this semester, LAs are also leading recitations in the Department of Philosophy.

Students can also sign up for LA-directed supplemental study groups outside the classroom.

“Personally, I prefer to have LAs in the classroom, where they are impacting the most students,” she said. 

Invested students are required to co-enroll in a three-credit pedagogy class, where they are taught how to engage with students, ask effective questions and design activities for study groups, she said.

“This course focuses on active learning,” Emenike said. “There is no lecturing. This class is modelled after how we want LAs to run a class with their students.”

Another requirement for LAs is attending weekly staff meetings, she said. The course instructor will hold one-hour meetings in which he or she shares feedback and strategies for teaching with their LAs and TAs.

In turn, LAs are able to provide feedback to the course instructor. Typically, students develop more of a connection with their LA than their professor, due to large class sizes.

“Students see LAs as their peers and someone who is closer to them,” Emenike said.

LAs are then able to convey students’ issues with course material to the professor during the weekly meetings, she said. 

The LA program is about helping students engage with the material, Emenike said.

“They sit in lectures and nod, but LAs help them think about content in a new way,” she said.

In addition to LAs in the classroom, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Academic Forum explored other ways Rutgers can improve the transfer experience. 

Richard Ludescher, dean of Academic Programs at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, said for most transfer students, their first semester is almost a loss.

Transfer students register after everyone else, and he said most required science courses are already filled.

Aside from schedule conflicts, he said transfer students face major cultural changes.

“I was a transfer as an undergraduate, and it’s a very difficult process,” he said. “You’ve moved into an environment where people aren’t looking to make friends because they’ve already been at the school for a year.” 

Carol Andrew, assistant dean of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, said the trouble transfer students face when transitioning is called “transfer shock,” something that is a reality at every college. Transfer shock is particularly true at Rutgers, due to its size and because most transfers come from small community colleges. 

In the School of Arts and Sciences, a mandatory one-credit course, “Students in Transition Seminar,” exists for transfer students and alleviates issues they might face, Andrew said.

Transfer students’ problems can be better addressed if Rutgers creates a link with community colleges, Ludescher said.

Students in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences could deal with the transition more easily if Rutgers started a program to connect them with Rutgers students before they switch schools, Ludescher said. 

“We’re making sure administrators at community colleges understand the difficulties of transferring and know the courses required for their transferring students,” he said.

Avalon Zoppo

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