Student Spotlight: Braden Czapla, Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering
Braden Czapla, Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering, shares how after transitioning out of an instructional role to focus on research, he sought out a community of scholars who believe in the importance of pedagogy. He has now been with the Center for Teaching and Learning’s Lead Teaching Fellowship (LTF) program for two years, first as a Lead Teaching Fellow and now as a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow.
In this Spotlight story, Braden shares how facilitating learning communities and other professional development opportunities for his peers has strengthened his own teaching practice, and offers tips for being a good mentor to undergraduate students.
“The CTL and the LTF program provided me an outlet to further my education in teaching. But maybe more importantly, they gave me a platform and the training to look back at my own field and share my interest in teaching with my peers, creating a small community of our own within mechanical engineering.”
Roles at the CTL:
- Senior Lead Teaching Fellow, Mechanical Engineering, 2017-2018
- Lead Teaching Fellow, 2016-2017
What motivated you to apply for the CTL Lead Teaching Fellows program?
Teaching runs in my family. My mother received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and Spanish, my oldest sister is a middle school teacher, and my other sister and brother-in-law are both university professors. During my senior year of undergraduate studies, I was lucky enough to be a teaching assistant for two mechanical engineering courses and really enjoyed interacting with students in that capacity.
When I started my graduate work at Columbia, I was once again a teaching assistant but transitioned out of the classroom and into a research assistantship after one semester. I missed teaching and working with students in the classroom. So when the CTL opened up its Lead Teaching Fellows (LTF) program to the engineering school for the 2016-2017 school year, I jumped at the opportunity to apply.
You have participated in the Lead Teaching Fellows program for two years, first as a Lead Teaching Fellow and now as a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow. What have you enjoyed most about your work in this program?
What the CTL does best, in my opinion, is create a community of scholars who believe in the importance of pedagogy. In STEM fields, it is not uncommon to prioritize research over teaching responsibilities. The CTL and the LTF program provided me an outlet to further my education in teaching. But maybe more importantly, they gave me a platform and the training to look back at my own field and share my interest in teaching with my peers, creating a small community of our own within mechanical engineering.
As I transitioned into my role as a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow (SLTF), I became a mentor to a group of interdisciplinary Lead Teaching Fellows with the common goal of changing the culture of teaching in their respective departments. Once again, the CTL facilitated the creation of a group of scholars with diverse perspectives and ideas that have been eye-opening and instructive in my own development. In some ways, I feel they have mentored me as much as I have mentored them.
You recently had a new experience at CTL co-facilitating a CTLgrads Learning Community. What was that experience like?
I had the great pleasure of co-hosting a CTLgrads Learning Community with fellow SLTF Almudena Marín-Cobos. Together, we planned a series of three workshops centered around metacognition (thinking about your own thinking) and the ways in which metacognitive practices enhance learning. The learning community was my first time ever co-leading a workshop and I could not have imagined a better partner-in-crime. Almudena and I learned so much about metacognitive approaches to teaching and helped facilitate some great discussions with students from across campus. I was really encouraged by how well the participants responded to the activities and the great points and experiences they were able to share with the group. Coming out of the experience, I feel more confident in my ability to lead workshops and I have identified weaknesses that I can work on improving.
Looking back on your engagements with the CTL, in what ways has interacting with peers strengthened your own teaching practices?
One of the most impactful experiences the CTL afforded me was the opportunity to attend the 2017 Innovative Teaching Summer Institute (ITSI). At ITSI, I was able to develop a nascent idea into a fully formed assignment, which I will be implementing in my Spring 2018 class. My plan is to inject short “micro-labs” into the recitation sections of a traditionally lecture-based engineering course. I believe that mixing in more hands-on experiences will help students connect with abstract concepts.
My favorite feature of ITSI was the peer mentoring. I was paired with an interdisciplinary group of students, all with an interest in injecting research and experimentation into the classes we teach. Collectively, we represented perspectives from mechanical engineering, art history, economics, history, and earth & environmental sciences. Having so many pedagogical backgrounds was a strength that allowed me to question my assumptions of what was clear, what was unnecessary, and what was truly instructive. I cannot give my groupmates enough credit for helping me craft a better assignment that I could on my own.
Below, Braden offers his own tips and suggestions for being a good mentor to undergraduate students. Consider using some of these approaches in your own teaching practice.
- Graduate students are, in many ways, ambassadors of their field to undergraduates. Many students will get more facetime and one-on-one interactions with their graduate instructor than a faculty instructor. Try to be mindful of that and demonstrate your enthusiasm for your field.
- Make yourself as open as your schedule allows to meet with students. When you do meet, try to make a personal (but appropriate) connection with your students.
- Take the time to try and understand why students ask you the questions they do. It can be hard to put yourself in the shoes of a novice and we oftentimes forget how difficult it was to learn material that we now view as easy.