Stefan Siegel, a researcher in the Academy’s Aeronautics Department, works with Cadet 1st Class Jose Gastiaburu Herrera, who is assigned to Cadet Squadron 26, on a project designed to harness energy from waves. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Mike Kaplan)
11/18/2011 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Air Force Academy routinely ranks at or near the top of the lists compiled by publications such as Forbes and U.S News and World Report. Faculty excellence and accessibility are among the Academy's major selling points.
This is all common knowledge. What is not well-known or covered in the banner headlines is why the Academy faculty as a whole is so highly touted.
Going beyond the rankings to determine the answer to the "why" question, one finds exhibits A and B, known officially as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Program and the Center for Educational Excellence.
The former, often shortened to SoTL, falls under the research umbrella at the Academy and is a recent arrival. Aside from the director's position, the program is sustained with money provided by Academy alum John Martinson.
Since its founding in the summer of 2009, SoTL has been helping to unlock the secrets of effective education. As its name implies, the program's research covers both sides of that two-way street. It is doing trailblazing things, most of them inspired and driven by Academy faculty.
Dr. Lauren Scharff, the program director, explained the hierarchy consisting of good teaching, scholarly teaching and SoTL. Good teaching involves a haphazard approach to finding what works. Scholarly teaching results from instructors' application of studies and professional literature to enhance their efforts.
"Scholarship of teaching and learning takes it the next step," Scharff said. "And that's when, in addition to trying to be the best teacher you can based on everything we know and understand, you are actually contributing to the literature. So just like with other disciplines ... you try something new, you assess it to see what are your results, and then you evaluate it and disseminate it."
In other words, the educational process at the Academy is a research laboratory in and of itself.
Most of the time, the research is carried out within a specific class or department. But the Academy is also undertaking two major institution-wide projects that are linked across departments: assessments of critical thinking for four-degree cadets and a recurring e-reader initiative.
"We're going to be looking at both usability and feedback as well as the impact on learning behavior because ultimately that's what we're interested in," Scharff said. "It's not just like 'Oh, isn't this a fun piece of technology'; it's 'How does this impact the scholarship of teaching and learning?'"
A lot of the SoTL projects are embedded in the class, so although the primary objective is the transfer of knowledge, cadets and instructors double as guinea pigs helping to advance understanding of what works and why.
For example, the electronic tablets and e-readers have provided insights into cadets' behavior in the course of their work. Researchers last semester found that cadets are less likely to make annotations in a hard-copy textbook because they will get more money when they resell it if there are fewer markings.
"That's detrimental to learning," Scharff said.
Electronic texts eliminate such concerns, but not every course uses that technology. Instructors of classes with traditional textbooks can take advantage of those findings by considering alternative ways for cadets to access crucial material.
Much of the SoTL Program's work at the Academy is, in fact, based on faculty initiative. Scharff said that instructors often hear about the program and come to her with "really fuzzy ideas" about what they want to do. She helps refine the idea into a research effort or connect the person making the suggestion with other faculty members testing similar approaches.
Emphasis is always on sharing, based on the premise that teachers should not keep an effective tactic to themselves. Research results are disseminated both internally at the Academy and to the scholarly community at large.
"We're definitely making a name for ourselves external to the Academy," Scharff said. "But the biggest thing is that we use it here to benefit the cadets. Mr. Martinson is concerned that the Academy impact is paramount."
The program works hand in hand with the Center for Educational Excellence, and the two are practically neighbors in Fairchild Hall.
"Part of what they do is try to share best practices, and best practices are based on research, what works," Scharff said. "So that scholarly teaching level is where we really dovetail. What my program does is to try to expand our understanding of best practices. We're very complementary."
A branch of the Dean of Faculty's Directorate of Education, the CEE has a richer history than its junior partner. Its primary emphasis is the faculty, and that process starts with the mandatory orientation training for new faculty members.
"We're really here to partner with faculty to help them and help all of us improve the academic mission of the Academy," said Dr. Steve Jones, the CEE director. "And we do that in really two ways. One is a faculty-development way. ... And then we also have an academic-assessment portion of what we do."
The center also furthers individual departments' mentoring activities for teachers.
"We intentionally target efforts toward faculty members at all different levels, because the going-in assumption is that while certainly with experience comes an awful lot of wisdom about teaching, it's something we can all get better at," Jones said.
For the past four summers, course directors have gathered off-site for a course design retreat. Jones said that the retreat is meant to address this question: "How do you construct your course, even before the students get there, so that you're likely to put the faculty members and the students in the best possible position to have a really important, meaningful learning experience while they're there?"
Another well-received CEE activity involves synergy and books. The center has organized several book groups in which faculty members read and discuss a book pertaining to some aspect of higher education. Approximately 30 faculty members are currently reading "Whistling Vivaldi."
The book explores a concept called stereotype threat, which is a phenomenon created by a person's feeling of being stereotyped, real or imagined. This creates such self-consciousness about the stereotype that the person's performance can suffer as a result.
"That may, in part, explain some of the diversity challenges that we are wrestling with," Jones said. "We've had really good conversations with faculty members about the concept in general but also about what implications (this has) in our classroom and how can we make the classroom as inclusive as it can be for people of all different backgrounds."
One intriguing possibility for the CEE agenda in the near future is an inventory of the Academy's high-impact practices. The term refers to things that when done well produce a major and transformative impact on students.
Examples include undergraduate research, study abroad and capstone activities. Jones said he would put "jumping out of a perfectly good airplane" in that category.
By cataloguing its high-impact practices, the Academy could better ensure that faculty members are aware of them and also seek to offer as many cadets as possible a chance to experience one or more of the Academy's high-impact practices.
Dean of the Faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born has only good things to say about both entities. She's also in the group reading "Whistling Vivaldi" and can personally vouch for the work they are doing.
"Our faculty are dedicated to providing a world-class, learning-focused education to our cadets," Born said. "Our success is defined by their success. We continually evaluate our course content and curriculum to ensure we are delivering the best products -- leaders of character -- to our customers, the Air Force and the nation."
That rigorous evaluation will continue, using all sorts of metrics and methodologies. And thanks to a three-year renewal of SoTL funding by donor Martinson, the partnership between SoTL and CEE has been extended.
So, rankings wonks, the Academy will be looking forward to hearing from you all again soon.