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In a TA training course at the University of Delaware, on a humid August day, about 60 new biology and chemistry graduate students gathered around tables debating the best way to explain dependent and independent variables. They had just suffered through a video of an obviously unprepared TA struggling to answer just that question. The TAs responded with occasional groans or chuckles.
Hal White, a biochemistry professor who has taught Delaware's HHMI-funded “Introduction to Laboratory Instruction” class for eight years, says that first-time TAs often fear they won't know the material or be able to answer questions like this one. But that usually isn't the kind of problem they encounter. “There are more issues of management than there are of content,” he says. For example, how do you get students to come to class on time? What do you do if they are constantly texting or talking on a cell phone?
White's goal in this science-specific TA training is to get them past their personal fears and these common problems quickly, so they can move on to the serious business of teaching. He wants them to think about how people learn—even if for just one hour a week. “What I‘m trying to do is take the focus from one's self to a focus on the students,” he says.
Graduate students need to understand that they can have a big impact on undergraduates, White says. College is a time when many students change how they think about the world, from a simple black and white view to one that includes the shades of gray so common in science. The TAs can also help students understand the importance of science—this science class might be the only one they take in their college career.
Graduate student Brad Bauer took the Delaware TA training course in 2006 when he started teaching an introductory chemistry lab at the university, which is consistently among the 10 schools with the largest number of undergraduate chemistry and biochemistry majors in the country. Introductory classes are often packed with 2,200 or so students each fall. The training helped him overcome his initial nervousness, and the support structure was important when he encountered his first major problem in the lab.