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UB joins national network to improve teaching skills of future STEM faculty

The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning aims to improve STEM learning for all college and university students.


Published March 27, 2017

“I learned along the way, but it would have been more productive, efficient and easier if I had something like CIRTL at the time.”
Luis Colón, A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Chemistry and associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral education
UB Graduate School

Luis Colón never trained to be a teacher.

“I was trained to do research,” which is what most faculty members in STEM fields are trained to do, says Colón, the A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Chemistry and associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral education in the UB Graduate School.

So when Colón was hired by a major academic research institution where teaching is a major component of a faculty member’s responsibilities, he had “no clue how to conduct myself in front of a classroom in a teaching setting.”

“Sure, I could lecture in my particular subject area,” he says. But just because you know the subject matter well doesn’t mean you can teach it well, he adds.

“In the end, it is not just teaching or research in the discipline; to me it is about how these two are scholarly integrated as one becomes an effective faculty member," he says.

“I learned along the way, but it would have been more productive, efficient and easier if I had something like CIRTL at the time.”

CIRTL — the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning — is a national network of 43 research universities that aims to improve the teaching skills and increase the diversity of future university faculty in STEM fields. Housed in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it was established more than a decade ago with support from the National Science Foundation.

UB recently joined the CIRTL network, a move that will be a boon to UB graduate students and postdocs in the STEM fields interested in pursuing careers in academia.

CIRTL@UB, a collaboration between UB’s Graduate School and the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), is headed by Colón, who serves as institutional leader, and administrative co-leader Xiufeng Liu, director of CEI and professor of learning and instruction. Monica Carter, a CEI staff member, will serve as program administrator. CIRTL@UB will be housed in CEI.

UB will officially launch CIRTL@UB with a special program from noon to 1 p.m. March 30 in 145A Student Union, North Campus. A light lunch will be served. RSVPs are encouraged.

CIRTL network director Robert Mathieu notes that education research has shown that “ineffective teaching often is the reason students leave STEM degree programs. Knowing this, and that 80 percent of the PhDs in the nation are educated at only 100 research universities, we realized the huge leverage and potential impact of training graduate students to become effective teachers before they become STEM faculty members,” he says

Kitch Barnicle, executive director of CIRTL, points out that STEM graduate coursework and other activities historically have been focused on creating researchers in specific academic fields.

“As a matter of fact, new professors often face their first classes of students with little preparation in teaching,” Barnicle says. “Our goal is to develop great researchers who also are great teachers — not one or the other.”

Liu agrees, pointing out that there’s growing consensus at research universities that the next generation of STEM faculty “will be not only scholars in their disciplines, but also scholars in teaching and learning.”

And one of the core tenets of CIRLT is that “teaching is research,” stresses Graham Hammill, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the UB Graduate School.

“Not only does this challenge the idea that teaching and research are separate activities,” he says. “It also means more than simply teaching insights gained from your research.”

And CIRTL@UB will help UB doctoral students and postdocs realize this vision.

“CIRTL promotes the deliberative use of research methods to develop the teaching practices that lead to real, engaged student learning,” Hammill says. “In applying research methods to teaching, graduate students become better teachers and more rigorous researchers, and the students they teach learn more effectively in the process.”

Now that UB is a member of the CIRTL national network, grad students and postdocs have access to a national center of more than 40 universities providing a vast amount of information on STEM pedagogy, diversity and professional development, Liu says.

“CIRTL brings to UB additional opportunities to participate in a myriad of events, and engage with peers and mentors across a national network that is now at our fingertips via the internet,” he says. CIRTL will supplement the variety of programs now offered at UB by CEI that support faculty, as well graduate students and post-docs, in developing teaching competences.

CIRTL@UB participants will receive certification that is recognized by the entire network since each member institution operates on the same set of core principles — teaching as research, learning communities, and learning through diversity, Liu says.

He adds that although the emphasis is on STEM disciplines, CIRTL@UB is open to all graduate students and postdocs at UB.

But CIRTL is more than simply a professional development program; it also affords opportunities to collaborate with other universities in research related to the education of future STEM faculty, Liu says.

For example, UB and nine other CIRTL institutions recently received a $1.5 million grant from the NSF to form an Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professorites (AGEP). This AGEP grant will be used to improve the graduate school climate to increase the number of underrepresented students and postdocs preparing for faculty careers.  

Liu says CIRTL@UB’s programming will follow and build on the CIRTL core ideas by developing specific paths that allow CIRTL certification through learning communities engaged in teaching-as-research activities. That includes a series of teaching seminars for postdocs and graduate students designed to prepare them to become future STEM faculty members.

Participants also will be able to create an individualized path to CIRTL certification.

More information is available on the CIRTL@UB website.

Amaris C. Borges-Muñoz, a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry who works in the Colón Lab, plans to become a faculty member in chemistry. She says CIRTL@UB offers her a unique opportunity that fits well with her long-term goals.

“In order to properly educate our students, we need to learn and improve the training used on a day-to-day basis in the classroom,” she says. “Not every group learns in the same way; individuals have different needs and there is a necessity to evolve the methods used to prepare them for the future.

“Having the guidance and support to work toward achieving and promoting successful teaching practices are some of the reasons why I plan to be involved in the CIRTL program,” says Borges-Muñoz, whose research focuses on the development and evaluation of new stationary phases for liquid and supercritical fluid chromatography.

“I have a passion for research and a genuine desire to help others; with the assistance from CIRTL, I know that my aspirations will become a reality.”