AAE teaching fellowship prepares PhD students for academic careers

The fellowship, enabled by a generous donor in October 2019, allows PhD students to instruct a course and pairs them with a faculty mentor.
Divya Bhargava, a PhD student, was among AAE's first class of "teaching fellows." Bhargava was awarded for her previous experience as a TA, twice winning the College of Engineering's Magoon Award, given to outstanding teaching assistants and instructors.

The interactions, simply, weren’t the same.

Instead of hosting office hours and addressing student on a one-on-one basis as a teaching assistant, Divya Bhargava and Alex Burton started Spring 2020 standing in front of classrooms of as many as 40 undergraduate students in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

In their new roles as AAE teaching fellows, Bhargava and Burton needed to make immediate adjustments.

Catering learning to one specific student wasn’t an option in this environment. Now, their eyes had to constantly flicker across the room, intent on reading non-verbal cues, gauging whether students are understanding the material. Did they need to change the way they were teaching a concept? Did they need to pause and add more detail, solicit questions?

All of their focus had to be on the students and the lecture material. They could not waver even for a minute — because then they’d lose attention of the students.

Each lecture was different and provided an opportunity to learn, to continuously improve, to spontaneously change a teaching method or quickly think of examples students could relate to.

Now, the spring semester officially over with grades turned in May 12, Bhargava and Burton can take a break and reflect on it all.

“I have enjoyed every bit of it,” Bhargava said. “Our students are excited about aerospace engineering, and I was happy to share that excitement with them.”

Burton called the teaching fellowship “excellent.”

And that encompassed the entire experience, realizing every moment — from the light-bulb-on ones to the awkward ones — provided value.

“As I prepare for faculty positions this year, I am confident that my experience as a teaching fellow will help me become a competitive candidate on the academic job market,” Bhargava said.

That is exactly the point of the fellowship, enabled by a generous donor in October 2019. AAE PhD students are paired with a faculty mentor and instruct a course with the intention that each small step made in the program will take fellows closer to taking the next giant leap in their career.

Applications are submitted to Associate Head for Undergraduate Education Karen Marais, and the School’s Curriculum Committee selects the fellows.

Marais and AAE Professor Carolin Frueh met with the entire group of fellows monthly over the first year of the program and also served in mentorship roles. They acted as sounding boards,  resources, sharers of teaching materials and teaching experiences.

It was an experience Marais cherished.

“I enjoy mentoring,” she said. “We all shared things we’ve learned in our classes, tips and tricks. We all get value out of it, even those of us who have been teaching for a long time. From an associate head perspective, it helps me to make sure we’re maintaining the quality of our teaching.

“There’s a need for instructors, there’s a need for quality instruction and there’s a need to prepare graduate students for faculty careers. This program is a very conscious effort for us to provide teaching training while meeting a critical department need for quality instruction. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

Teaching fellows are assigned to high-enrollment undergraduate courses with multiple sections. In Spring 2020, AAE203, AAE251 and AAE340 had teaching fellows. Tom Cunningham and Smriti Paul handled 203, Aeromechanics I, under mentor Frueh; Bhargava was assigned Intro to Aerospace Design (251), under Marais; and Burton taught a section of 340, Dynamics and Vibrations, also under Frueh’s guidance.

The fellows were exposed to everything an AAE faculty member would be in their teaching roles.

They worked with the teaching mentor to prepare assignments, quizzes and exams. They had to actively plan how to present that material, rather than just reacting to students’ questions about what they heard in class, like in a TA role. They did the same level and type of grading as the teaching mentor. They actually instructed courses.

New skill sets needed to be added and others fine-tuned, molded by the challenges presented to them every time they stepped in front of a group of students. And then, from mid-March on, they had to adjust like faculty to the wrinkle of teaching the course online as Purdue changed operations because of COVID-19.

“Teaching this semester was very much a crash course in how to be adaptive and roll with whatever comes your way,” Burton said. “This applies to the classroom itself — the projectors in my room developed an unfortunate habit of shutting down for 3-5 minutes halfway through lectures — as well as things that came up with students. It is impossible to anticipate all the questions you will get, and sometimes I would need to change how I was explaining something to make it more understandable. And, obviously, there was the sudden shift over to online classes.”

Another unique piece about the fellowship was each fellow was evaluated by the faculty mentor. That allowed for instant feedback — and helped the fellows improve and, even, define their teaching styles.

Bhargava and Burton had mentors who also are their advisors, but that isn’t always the case. For them, though, that added another layer of comfort and ease in discussing any struggles. So did the fact both had been teaching assistants in the courses they were assigned as teaching fellows.

As a fellow, Burton attended Frueh’s section lectures, conducted immediately before his, and they discussed the class weekly during research meetings. After the shift to online teaching, they met virtually to coordinate and discuss how to cover various topics.

“She did a good job giving feedback on my lectures, while also encouraging me to stick to my own teaching style where it differed from her own,” Burton said. “She also discussed decisions involving both sections of the class with me and took my feedback and ideas into account. That approach has helped me grow as a teacher, as well as giving me a model for how to think through decisions if I am ever lead instructor for a course.”

When Bhargava was a TA under Marais in 251, Marais showed patience, taking time to answer questions and review responses to emails and announcements in advance. Bhargava appreciated how Marais didn’t only tell her what needed to be changed but offered the “why.” As Bhargava grew as a TA, Marais gave her freedom to make independent decisions.

That made for a smooth transition from a TA to an instructor.

“Under her guidance, I became a strong candidate for the teaching fellowship,” Bhargava said. “As a teaching fellow, I learned a lot by observing her teach and interact with the students. In our weekly meetings, she would ask me what is going well and what is going not so well in my class and guide me through the not-so-well part. She has always helped me stay positive, and her confidence in me instilled my confidence in myself.”

It wasn’t only mentors who helped the fellows grow.

Students, too, offered feedback that reinforced confidence in teaching methods and strengthened applications. Criticism, too, helped identify weak spots, what wasn’t working and where adjustments to teaching style had to be made. Honesty was valued, Bhargava said, and fellows quickly found students appreciated and respected when mistakes could be admitted. Instead of giving a wrong answer, fellows learned it’s always better to point students to resources or ask for time to think about a response.

That kind of interaction produced a connectedness and a responsibility toward the students, Bhargava said.

She sensed their passion for aerospace engineering and wanted to nurture that, especially considering 251 is one of the first courses in the major that AAE students take.

“Being able to teach a course that is probably the first aerospace engineering course to the future generation of aerospace engineers is exciting. I looked forward to lectures and interacting with the students,” she said. “One of my biggest takeaways is that as an instructor I need to be excited about what I teach. If I don’t show the enthusiasm and the willingness to teach, I cannot expect my students to be interested in the course.

“Teaching a class was therapeutic in the sense that for one hour and fifteen minutes, it was almost impossible to focus on anything else other than the students and the subject that we are all so excited about.”

Interested in supporting the AAE teaching fellowship program? Please contact Rita Baines (chief development officer) or Beth Kuwata (director of development).