College Plans to Revitalize Teaching with Mellon Grant
Issue   |   Wed, 02/03/2016 - 01:20

The college received a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation this past December to make teaching more inclusive and effective for students starting in the fall of 2016.

The mission of the Mellon Foundation is to promote the humanities, arts and social sciences through supporting institutions of higher education.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation invited Amherst College to submit a grant proposal last May after President Biddy Martin met with Earl Lewis, the foundation’s president. “Administrators who touched various parts of the academic program and student life” drafted the proposal, according to Lisa Stoffer, the director of the college’s grants office. The proposal was first submitted in July and revised several times before being accepted in December.

“It has become, over the last 20 years, rarer and rarer for major U.S. foundations to fund small, independent liberal arts colleges,” Stoffer said.

Initiatives funded by this grant will span the next four years, providing faculty with resources to adapt their teaching methods to better serve students of diverse backgrounds and various levels of pre-college preparation.

“What the grant will help us do is train faculty to teach to a range of students,” Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein said, citing growing differences between current and past students, such as increased reliance on technology and diminished attention spans. “For faculty who’ve been here for a long time, there’s a sense of …‘Oh, the students aren’t responding the same way they used to.’”

Funding will be used to provide seminars and workshops on new teaching methods, such as adapting to tech-savvy students, to interested faculty. It will also provide financial incentives for faculty to spend part of their summer developing new ways to teach, according to Epstein. The college currently has one instructional designer, Hari Stephen Kumar, who evaluates current methods of teaching and helps faculty experiment with different ways. Epstein said plans are under way to hire an additional person for this role by July 1.

“We’re hoping to get roughly a quarter of the faculty, ultimately, to participate in these kinds of workshops and come up with new strategies in their classes,” Epstein said. She also expressed hopes for more than a quarter of academic departments becoming engaged in these projects. Currently, 35 faculty members across 19 departments have worked with Kumar, often in one-on-one sessions on overall course design or specific assignments.

In contrast to previous efforts to develop course design, these new initiatives will focus on lower-level courses, especially those required to complete majors.

“Pedagogical innovation has been about upper-level courses, [and] it’s been about very small classes,” Epstein said. “We’re interested in scaling that up, particularly in introductory courses that are required.”

According to Stoffer, the fund will enable the college to invite outside instructional experts to come and discuss topics, such as learning styles and implicit bias, with the faculty members.

“[There are] ways to design the whole course so that that’s less of an issue,” Stoffer said. “So rather than say to the individual student, ‘You have to get some services and some additional help,’ it’s just designing the course so that everyone has more access to what they’re learning.”

Additionally, programs targeting skills development for students, such as public speaking, debating and design thinking, are slated for January 2017.

“I think there is interest among students around design thinking and active problem-solving … and problem-solving in ways that will be more applicable to future careers,” Epstein said.

According to Epstein, the college hopes to hire an expert to evaluate the effectiveness of these plans once they are implemented.

The proposals in the grant were based on the goals of the college’s strategic plan, published in July 2015.
“It took the goals of the strategic plan as the starting point, and figured out things that [the] Mellon [Foundation] would typically be interested in, and how they matched up,” Stoffer said, emphasizing that while the strategic plan was not built for a grant, but “these are things that interest foundations.”

In the past, Amherst has received funding from the Mellon Foundation for the Mead Art Museum, postdoctoral fellowships and Mellon Tutorials, which let students to work closely with faculty in social science and humanities research.

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