By Gabriel Popkin
A new publication will help physics researchers enhance their mentoring skills, thereby improving the research experience for the next generation of physicists. In collaboration with staff members from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, APS has developed a guide for facilitating a training seminar to be given to physics faculty, postdocs, and graduate students who are in mentorship roles.
This publication is part of a series of guides developed by WCER staff members, who reported in a 2006 Science article that research mentors who have undergone training communicate more effectively with their mentees, and are more likely to engage mentees in discussions on topics such as diversity and student expectations. According to the article, undergraduates report having better experiences with trained mentors than with mentors who had not received training.
The physics guide was prepared by a team consisting of two faculty members, a postdoc, and a graduate student from the physics community, as well as two staff members from WCER, who were supported by the National Science Foundation-funded Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning Network. This team was convened by Monica Plisch, the Assistant Director of Education at APS, who found out about the seminar series during a visit to the university.
“I immediately realized that these resources could benefit the physics community,” Plisch says. The physics guide fills a gap in the Wisconsin series, which previously included mentor training manuals for math, chemistry, and astrophysics researchers, but not physicists.
The guide includes themes such as establishing expectations, maintaining effective communication, addressing diversity, and dealing with ethical issues. Within each topic, the guide provides learning objectives, suggested activities and assignments, and case studies for discussion, along with discussion guides. The manual also includes a broader set of mentoring-related resources for facilitators.
“The team that put the physics manual together made some adaptations that enhanced the curriculum overall,” said Christine Pfund, a WCER staff member who led the development of previous subject guides, and was involved in the preparation of the physics guide. “We’re now planning to go back and add some of these features to our existing guides.”
Cathy Mader, a physics professor at Hope College who led the effort to revise the guide for physics researchers, said that leaders of Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs strongly supported the development of the physics guide. “Just as professors are expected to teach without any pedagogy training, we expect them to mentor without any formal mentorship training,” Mader says. “This new resource will help physicists develop the skills they need as research mentors.”
Good mentorship is also broadly recognized as being important to increasing the diversity of the physics community. Vanderbilt University physics professor David Ernst plans to use the guide to give workshops at events such as meetings of the National Society of Black Physicists and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists, as well as at his own university, which is a partner in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program. Ernst, who was also part of the preparation team, says, “This guide will be a nice way to help physics faculty understand their crucial role in preparing future researchers.”
The training guide will be available on the APS website at Undergraduate Faculty Resources as well as on the University of Wisconsin’s website, Research Mentor Training.
In addition, APS staff members are organizing workshops entitled “Improving Your Skills as a Research Mentor” at this year’s March Meeting.