Rice faculty provide insight on innovative approaches to teaching and learning

Members of the Rice University community gathered Jan. 17 to explore new and existing approaches to innovative teaching and hear from some of Rice’s most esteemed educators at the university’s first Symposium on Teaching and Learning, hosted by the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE).


The event opened with a welcome by Provost George McLendon and remarks by CTE Director Joshua Eyler, who spoke to large crowd of Rice faculty, students and staff in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium.

The event’s first panel was an interactive roundtable on effective teaching techniques, featuring commentary by Karim Al-Zand, associate professor of composition and theory; Lisa Balabanlilar, assistant professor of history; Jeffrey Fleisher, assistant professor of anthropology; Jason Hafner, associate professor of physics and astronomy; and Ann Saterbak, professor in the practice of bioengineering education.

The faculty members discussed their unique and varied methods for engaging students in the classroom — from requiring their students to design medical solutions for the developing world to analyzing the works of musical greats such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven — and provided examples to the audience.

Balabanlilar, who teaches classes in South Asian history, noted that while she is a fan of traditional lectures and their benefits, she aims to engage her students in experiential learning when she can. When teaching Mongol history, she takes her students to the Central Quad to perform a “circle hunt,” a way in which this civilization gathered food. She said that in the process of this hands-on activity, the students learn important lessons about the Mongol tribes.

“By the end there are some lessons learned that are really profound about leadership and organization. The students are always shocked at how easy it is to seize control [of the hunting situation] and how few of them actually bother to do it. So when we talk about succession practices and creating leadership in the Mongol tribe, it’s mostly about who exerts power over others, and they re-enact this in their hunt.”

Following lunch, Eden King ’01, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University who received both her B.A. and Ph.D. from Rice, delivered a keynote titled “The View from the Shoulders of Giants.” She lauded her faculty mentors at Rice and discussed how her experience shaped her career as an educator and researcher.

“You have the power to fuel a future generation of scholars,” King said. “And helping even one student to think critically about the world around them and to show them their potential … and to use your own science to make the world even just a little bit better … for just one person, that’s a life’s work.”

The second panel, “Roundtable Reflections: Our Roles as Teachers and Scholars,” included commentary from Mikki Hebl, professor of psychology; John Hutchinson, dean of undergraduates and professor of chemistry; Ron Sass, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology; John Zammito, the John Antony Weir Professor of History and Stephen Klineberg, professor of sociology and co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

In the discussion, the faculty members answered questions about how teaching at Rice has evolved during their careers, what changes they have seen in teaching challenges and approaches and what advice they would give to new faculty members. They also shared anecdotes from their teaching careers.

Hebl said that one of the things that she thinks makes Rice unique is that the university has so many individuals who are incredibly skilled as both teachers and researchers.

“You don’t have to be just one,” Hebl said. “And if you are a good teacher, you are talking about research. And it’s hard to talk about it without being really intimate with it.”

Klineberg noted the importance of allowing students to be active contributors to their learning process and the evolution of faculty from being “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side” and actively engaging with students in their education. But he was quick to note that he was struck by “how much there is [about teaching] that has not changed.”

“My sense is that things have changed in some superficial ways, but the basic underlying nature of what teaching is about has stayed,” Klineberg said. “And whatever the material is, the only way to be effective as a teacher is to really believe that what you’re teaching matters.”

After the symposium’s closing remarks from Hutchinson, Eyler said that this first event was “a huge success.”

“The symposium provided all of us with a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the amazing things that are happening in classrooms at this university, while at the same time challenging ourselves as educators to seek out new ways to design the most successful learning experiences for our students,” he said.
For more information on the CTE, visit http://cte.rice.edu/.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.