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by Debbie Chachra

Take the Plunge

Tackling unfamiliar subjects makes us better teachers.

Will international research cooperation give way to corporate competition? - Mark RaleighNone of us imagines becoming the professor who lectures from years-old, yellowed notes. But unless we consciously learn and teach new material, that’s what’s going to happen. We talk the talk — we ask our students to wrestle with new material every day — but we need to walk the walk ourselves, by learning new content or skills and bringing them to the classroom. This is a little scary. We’re used to being the person who has all the answers. After all, engineering faculty normally don’t teach without a Ph.D. or years of experience. Teaching something you’ve only just learned yourself can feel like being on a tightrope without a safety net. I had to get over the idea that my job was to have all the answers, and learn that it was valuable to give my students opportunities to find the answers themselves.

The simplest way to teach something you haven’t taught before is to bring a student-directed component into an existing course, letting students choose an area that interests them and investigate it deeply. Whether it’s a hands-on project or a review of current research, guiding your students as they learn something that you aren’t familiar with is a great way for you to learn alongside them. For example, every year my upper-year biomedical engineering students choose a topic to study in detail, and every year I get to learn about the latest findings in many different subfields, some of which get folded into the next iteration of the course.

Another approach is to coteach a course in a field that’s close to yours (or isn’t, if you’re brave!), which gives you a chance to teach something new but without feeling that you’ve been thrown into the deep end. Co-teaching something you’ve always wanted to learn is a great way to become current on a new topic, and it also gives you the opportunity to observe your colleagues’ pedagogical techniques.

The high-stakes way to teach new material is to follow the example of my colleague Mark Chang, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. During the summer and the January intersession, he puts himself through a crash course in a programming language or environment, and then teaches it in the following semester. His is a fast-moving field, and this approach enables him to get his students up to speed in some of the latest technologies. In the past few years he’s taught Ruby on Rails, mobile apps development on the Android phone, and more. By going through the process himself only shortly before his students, Mark reports, he finds out where the “pain points” are and is better equipped to help them learn. And it has borne unexpected fruit, opening up a new world of professional activities for Mark himself.

I’ve focused on the utility of teaching new material, but if you’re reading this, you almost certainly think learning is fun. And developing new skills yourself helps you reflect on what it means to be an educator. A few years ago, I decided to learn how to snowboard and took lessons. I was motivated but klutzy, and the experience made me think hard about the role I play in guiding my students from where they are to where they are trying to get. We expect our students to continuously engage with learning; we need to model it ourselves.


Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. She does research, speaks, and consults on engineering education and the student experience. She can be reached at or on Twitter as @debcha.




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