Duke Ph.D. students help departments with course development while building their own teaching skills
By Lily Neusaenger
In lab courses across the country, undergraduates tend to carry out weekly experiments that aren’t related to each other. Actual research labs, by contrast, operate differently.
“A growing trend in science education is to turn these laboratory courses into more inquiry-based experiences, where students participate in a semester-long research project,” said Taylor Outlaw, a Ph.D. student in chemistry. Talking with Charlie Cox, associate professor of the practice of chemistry, Outlaw learned that he was interested in making some changes along these lines.
Last year, Chemistry was one of nine departments that received Summer Course Development Grants for the creation or redesign of courses that will be offered regularly to undergraduates beginning in Summer 2023. Cox and Outlaw collaborated on revising CHEM 202L into a new Organic Chemistry II Laboratory for Duke’s summer session.
“It’s really [about] trying to showcase the scientific method and a more realistic experience of a hands-on lab,” Outlaw said. “When you’re a Ph.D. student or a full-time researcher, nobody does a ‘dump, dump, stir, throw it out’ process. Whatever you’re doing, you’re either characterizing it, doing something new with it or trying to answer a big-picture question.”
This kind of transformative course development is happening outside of labs too.
For the Department of Romance Studies, Senior Lecturer Laura Florand teamed up with Ph.D. student Samar Miled to revise FRENCH 204A into Advanced Intermediate French with a focus on culture and sustainability in Tunisia.
Miled, a Tunisian native, was able to bring her cultural knowledge to the Duke in Tunisia study abroad program, which includes the revised course.
“Through extensive travel throughout the country, we will delve into cultural issues, including the ongoing ten-year revolution, while also emphasizing ecology and sustainability,” she explained. “We want to decentralize and allow students to discover […] different French-speaking regions” beyond France.
Creative Strategy Behind the Grants
These new grants from Duke’s offices of Undergraduate Education and Interdisciplinary Studies are intended to foster Duke Summer Session courses that align with curricular priorities, incorporate innovative approaches and provide teaching opportunities for Ph.D. students.
Duke Learning Innovation furnishes course design guidance through an intensive workshop and ongoing consultation.
More broadly, the grant program is a strategic way for Duke to strengthen undergraduate education and respond to increased demand for summer courses, while furthering the university’s commitment to excellence in Ph.D. training.
Participating doctoral students build skills in course design and pedagogy, and they receive summer funding — a result of creative thinking about how to provide 12-month Ph.D. funding. Those who go on to teach the resulting courses also gain experience as effective instructors. Participating faculty members receive research funding.
Becoming Better Teachers
“Charlie Cox has been amazing,” Outlaw noted, “and I learned a lot from Duke Learning Innovation about the student-centered approach to teaching — reflecting upon what we actually want students to come out of this course understanding or knowing about,” she said. “Not everyone that takes organic chemistry is going to be a chemist, but skills like writing, inquiry, thinking through the scientific method, being able to develop a solution to a problem [are] broadly applicable across disciplines. That’s what I want students to come out of my class with.”
Outlaw hopes to embark on a teaching-intensive academic career after graduation. “I feel like this has been a really cool, low-stakes practice run for when I’m actually doing this and am in full control of everything that occurs.”
For Miled, who comes from a traditional educational background, “Duke Learning Innovation taught me things like how to teach using games, especially with language. We don’t want [our courses] to be boring.”
Learning Innovation also invited psychiatrists and psychologists to advise the Ph.D. students on working with undergraduates, which Miled found helpful. “I think it’s very important to think about mental health, especially in a diverse setting such as a classroom, and to know how to behave with every student — what to say, what to avoid saying, how to think about their comfort and needs.” She said the grant experience boosted her confidence and made her feel comfortable teaching something new in a different setting.
These two examples illustrate the Summer Course Development Grants’ goals, which lie at the intersection of enhancing undergraduate education, addressing the rise in summer course demand, supporting Ph.D. training and providing 12-month funding. Looking ahead, future Ph.D. students will benefit from these grants by tapping into an archive of course materials to support their own summer teaching.
See a related story on the Summer Course Development Grants.
Lily Neusaenger ’25 is a content writer in the Office of the Provost. She is majoring in computer science with minors in statistical science and creative writing.