Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt: Faith Rovenolt and high impact learning experiences
By Faith Rovenolt, CFT undergraduate intern
Faith Rovenolt initiated the Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt blog series in spring 2019. She has shared posts based on interviews with Vanderbilt instructors every two weeks during the academic year since then. As she graduates and moves on to graduate school, she closes out the Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt blog with her reflections on the experiences that have most impacted her learning at Vanderbilt.
By this time this is published, I will either be less than a week away from graduating or have already graduated. At the time of writing this, all my exams have been taken, my honors thesis submitted, and final projects turned in. Although the final semester of my undergraduate career has not been what I expected, I’m still eternally grateful for the path that has brought me here.
Consistently throughout undergrad, what has motivated me and aided my learning is the personal investment from professors and other Vanderbilt faculty. For the sake of brevity, I can’t mention everyone that has most impacted my learning, but I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to the Vanderbilt community for getting me here. I am also honored to be able to spotlight just a few of the people and opportunities that have most impacted my learning.
Starting freshman year, there are four things that stand out to me in impacting my learning through all four years at Vanderbilt. Firstly, I was able to use AP credit to enter Advanced Placement Organic Chemistry freshman year (CHEM 2211-2212). I took my first ever college exam for that class. The class was a wonderful opportunity, as it connected me with a small group of people who would remain my friends as well as allowing me to see that professors are invested in their students. The teachers for that class, Dr. Carmello Rizzo and Dr. Steven Townsend, showed a personal interest in student learning. They taught that class because they wanted to be involved and invested in students who loved chemistry. While I haven’t taken a chemistry course since, that class has remained with me as a reminder that for every challenging, seemingly uninteresting course out there, there are professors who love it, love teaching it, and love teaching students who love it.
Also impactful was starting my minor in scientific computing. I took CS 1101 my freshman year with Professor Daniel Arena and continued on to take other scientific computing courses such as EES 4760 Agent-based modeling with Dr. Jonathan Gilligan. Not only did my scientific computing courses teach me valuable skills, but the minor itself was interdisciplinary, showing me how computing skills are applicable in many contexts which I will continue to apply in other areas of my life such, notably, my research.
My first toe-dip in the waters of research was with BSCI 1512L, an alternate to BSCI 1511L, the second half of the intro bio lab, where you begin supervised research. Guided by Charles Sissom, I learned by doing: actually writing, planning, and presenting research, while scary, was incredibly helpful in learning both the concepts and the skills we needed. By the end of that semester, I was brave enough to reach out to Dr. Ann Tate and join her research lab in the fall.
Lastly, I also met Dr. Cynthia Brame freshman year, who saw me give a presentation in NSC 1001, a commons seminar on epigenetics. When she reached out offering me a position as her assistant, accepting was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made at Vanderbilt.
In a way, working with Dr. Brame allowed me to see behind the curtain. I was exposed to the research behind teaching, the sheer amount of work and effort professors put into learning the best ways to teach. It gave me a whole new perspective and also allowed me to reflect more on my own learning. Now, I understood why teachers might have us turn to our neighbors and discuss a problem (active learning!). I began to learn the mechanisms behind my own learning, making me a more reflective and intentional student, and the pedagogies professors use to promote that learning. I also was able to interact with professors I might never have met otherwise, like through my Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt blog. While interdisciplinary approaches were already important to me, learning about the teaching techniques of used in courses I might never take made me a true believer. Again, I got to see behind the curtain and understand that teaching isn’t just putting on a PowerPoint; professors put far more work and intentionality into their teaching. I got to learn new things and have the chance to connect them to what I was learning.
Working at the CFT also gave me a chance to develop my writing skills. Every student should have the chance to hone their writing skills in a variety of ways. Working with Dr. Brame on her book and writing for the CFT blog afforded me one such opportunity. The classes I’ve taken, like a science communication course with Professor Stephen Ornes and fiction seminars with Professors Samuel Rutter and Tony Earley, have afforded me other opportunities. In fact, the science communication class inspired the Teaching Innovations Blog, because I wanted to work on the interviewing skills that I had started developing in that course. I’ve also written scientifically for classes as well as my research. These experiences helped prepare me to write a Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP) proposal for the National Science Foundation last fall. For any student in any field, I highly recommend looking for professional or scholarship opportunities to write. Having something I cared about at stake forced me to do my best (and it worked! I was awarded the GRFP). I just put those skills to use again as I finished my honors thesis for biology.
There are so many other classes and courses that have been instrumental for my learning. For example, I will never forget Dr. Abbot’s BSCI 3239 Evolution of Behavior class. Not only have the content and the theory crept into how I think about everything, but I also was really impacted by the clips of Planet Earth Dr. Abbot played in the class and his practice of handing out notecards at the end of each class so we could write down any questions we had.
Another class that I would specifically like to mention is Intro Latin (LAT 1101-1102). I was the only senior in the class, clearly having put it off. Yet it became one of my favorite courses. Again, it showed how useful interdisciplinary approaches are. For example, as learning Latin forced me to understand what things like the genitive and ablative mean, my own understanding of English grew. While I understand that large courses are a necessity at times, it also showed me once again that I appreciate and learn best in small classes where I can interact with and get to know the other students. Learning from and teaching other students has aided my learning immensely, not only in that course, which is why fostering student interpersonal relationships is so important. That course did that, even when it transitioned online this semester due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The professor, Dr. Chiara Sulprizio, preserved the interactivity of the course through platforms like zoom, where we could see each other and interact. This helped to maintain some degree of normalcy. Her flexibility was also incredibly important; adjusting readings to using discussion points to allow students to ask questions about homework allowed us to still learn under these new and eventful times.
There are still many more people and classes and opportunities that have aided my learning and will continue to do so as I move on to graduate school. Thank you to all who have contributed to my learning, including my family. To any and all who find themselves in the position of working from home with kids, please know from someone who was homeschooled by an amazing mother, your children can and will appreciate the time you spend with them and what they learn from you.