Pitt professors compete for course grants

The Cathedral of Learning contains more than 2,000 rooms and windows and houses a multitude of departments, including the Slavic Language Department, one of the four departments to submit proposals for the Course Incubator Grant. (Photo by Issi Glatts | Assistant Visual Editor)

Pitt is giving professors the chance to change their courses — but they’ll have to compete and collaborate for the limited funding.

The University will accept the final proposals for the 2018 Course Incubator Grants March 30. This is the first year the grant — which is intended to allow faculty to radically redesign classes with enrollment sizes of more than 100 people — is being offered. Two to four of the four finalists will receive grants, with the winners to be announced in April.

The finalists for the grant include professors from the Slavic languages, chemistry, biology and economics departments. Each of these professors works with a team of other faculty, the University Center for Teaching and Learning staff and, in some cases, students to craft their proposals of changes to their courses.

Chemistry professors Sean Garrett-Roe and Tara Meyer submitted proposals for General Chemistry I, and biological sciences professor Suzanna Lesko Gribble submitted for Foundations of Biology 1. Other professors who submitted proposals include Slavic languages and literature professor Olga Klimova-Magnotta — who is seeking a grant for Russian Fairy Tales — and economics professors Jane Wallace and Katherine Wolfe for Principles of Microeconomic Theory and Principles of Macroeconomic Theory.

Lorna Kearns, the director of Next Generation Learning at the Center for Teaching and Learning, said the idea came from Provost Patricia Beeson — who plans to step down later this year — but the desire for revitalization came from students and professors as well. Kearns said the grant is intended to help professors with large class sizes who often face constraints due to the size.

“If you have a class of 300 students, it’s very difficult in a 50- or 75-minute class to include everybody,” she said. “Active learning techniques seek to address that. And we think that we will be able to implement some of those with the projects we hope to see being transformed over the summer.”

According to the competition description, for a proposal to be eligible, it must be approved by the “appropriate chair, dean, or campus president” and should be for courses with enrollment of more than 100 students.

While only four proposals passed through the preproposal phase of the grant process and are now finalists, Kearns said the University Center for Teaching and Learning could work with professors whose proposals did not advance and help implement some of the changes desired for those courses as well.

Klimova-Magnotta said the University Center for Teaching and Learning is very active in the grant proposal process and frequently meets with each finalist to discuss different ideas and structural changes.

The four finalist courses each received a preliminary planning grant for the faculty to purchase materials such as literature or to travel to other universities to either attend a conference, go on a retreat or observe large lecture courses taking a similar approach to their proposals.

Klimova-Magnotta said the Slavic department wants the material in Russian Fairy Tales to better relate to students outside of the class. She also said there is a desire to move away from a typical hour-long lecture and incorporate more active learning, such as answering through clickers or whiteboards.

“We saw examples at this conference where people managed to make these classes interactive even when they have 400 or 600 students in a classroom,” Klimova-Magnotta said. “This is something we want to do to make sure the students do a lot of fun but very effective learning activities during this lecture time.”

Wallace said the economics department has been conducting research on how to better teach larger classes. Members of the department are attending conferences and observing classes where technology is incorporated in large classrooms. Additionally, they’re meeting with former students and teaching assistants, and are reading research on pedagogy, economics and teaching large classes.

Improving the classroom setting means incorporating learning tools from whiteboards to clicker systems such as Top Hat or Macmillan. Professors also desire better and paid summer training to prepare staff for the upcoming school year.

Gribble said the large lecture styles can be difficult for professors to work with, and that there is a need to change the approach to active learning across the introductory course as a whole.

“We don’t want the students to feel like they are just anonymous in this course. We want them to know that we want them here,” Gribble said. “We want to provide them a good experience and that they belong in the sciences and that there is a place for them.”

The amount of money each grant recipient receives depends on the budget included in the proposals, which includes the costs of summer staff, new technology and any other materials the courses may need.

“We are looking to them to tell us what they need to do the transformation that they propose,” Kearns said.

Meyers said all of the courses are deserving of the grant based on what she has seen in their proposals.

“There is a big push from the upper levels of the administration to make the larger classes be as helpful as possible to people,” she said. “From my perspective, all of the proposals and groups that I saw all have great ideas that probably should be funded.”

Kearns remains open to the idea that all four projects may be funded. Kearns also stressed that these implementations are not new for universities in general.

“The notion of transforming large classes to make them more engaging, more active and have a better impact on students is something that is happening at a lot of universities around the country,” Kearns said.

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