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Animal Sciences professor, grad student receive APLU Teaching Award for work with undergraduate teaching assistants

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) selected Elizabeth Karcher, professor of animal sciences, and Brianna Wardwell, a graduate research assistant in animal sciences, as the recipients of the 2023 Spring Innovative Teaching Awards for their proposal “Teaching the Teachers: Exploring the Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Experience.” The award honors their contribution to enriching the experiences of undergraduate teaching assistants.

Elizabeth Karcher Elizabeth Karcher
Brianna Wardwell Brianna Wardwell

Wardwell said the idea for the proposal under Karcher’s guidance came after her first semester teaching an introductory animal sciences course. 

“I was amazed to see how much the students grew throughout the semester, gaining new skills and confidence. This led me to conduct preliminary research under Dr. Karcher’s mentorship,” Wardwell said. “Essentially, what I was looking for was how to identify what success was for a teaching assistant and what made them feel successful, and how did that success compare to what were the most impactful experiences that led to personal or professional growth.” 

The long-term goal of this project is to collect data that will inform the creation of an evidenced-based professional development opportunity for undergraduate teaching assistants in the department. That opportunity will focus on preparing, supporting and celebrating undergraduate teaching assistants. 

Creating mentorship opportunities through undergraduate teaching assistantships is key, Wardwell said, explaining that makes the position more than grading papers and showing up to class, but more of a collaborative relationship where the teaching assistants feel they are part of the student support team. 

Recognizing their work, Karcher and Wardwell received $2,854 from the APLU, with an additional $1,000 from Purdue’s Animal Sciences Department in recognition of their achievement. With the award funding, Wardwell and Karcher will implement a study to determine the best ways to continue supporting undergraduate teaching assistants, working to build a program template for other departments to implement. 

After spending the summer recruiting new undergraduate assistants to enroll in the study, Karcher said they will prepare surveys to observe their experiences throughout the semester as well as use reflection workbooks and interview instructors for their feedback. At the end of the semester, they will conduct a focus group to identify the successes, areas for growth, and the value gained through the teaching assistant experience. Their plan is to develop a best practices guideline and workshop about mentoring and training undergraduate teaching assistants. 

“The goal here is to be impactful in what we do,” Karcher said. “We care about the overall experience for students enrolled in the class as well as those helping us teach these classes.” 

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