sealPurdue News

August 1998

Teaching assistant training goes global

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- If a program works to bridge the gender gap, perhaps it can improve international relations, too.

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That's the logic behind the new cultural awareness workshops being offered for teaching assistants on Purdue University's West Lafayette campus this fall.

Its groundbreaking classroom climate workshops addressing gender equity in science and engineering classes have been so successful that they are now a national model. This year the same team of Purdue faculty and staff has developed a new seminar series focusing on cultural diversity.

"We are an increasingly global society, and that's reflected on university campuses across the country," explains Emily Wadsworth, assistant director of Women in Engineering Programs at Purdue. "This new workshop is designed to better prepare graduate assistants to teach international and minority students in American college classrooms."

With financial support from Purdue's executive vice president for academic affairs and the deans of all 10 of the academic schools at Purdue, Wadsworth and her associates worked with focus groups of undergraduate and graduate students at the university. These groups identified a number of issues in the classroom that can make it an unfriendly environment for certain students.

"We learned that teaching assistants need to know how to be approachable, and to realize that some minorities may not be comfortable speaking up in class," Wadsworth says. "We also confirmed our suspicions that stereotyping does occur -- but the T.A. training shows them why they should never assume that an Asian student is a math wizard or that an African-American student is on an athletic scholarship and should therefore not be expected to perform well in class."

Like the gender equity workshops Wadsworth developed in 1995, the cultural awareness sessions will use an interactive theater method of presentation. The personal stories, cultural issues and comments from the focus group participants were used to create one exercise and two dramas for the workshops, which will be offered to teaching assistants in all academic disciplines for the first time this fall.

"Interactive theater is a wonderful training tool for demonstrating the complexity of what happens in the classroom and its impact on minorities," Wadsworth says. "The audience participation element encourages discussion of sensitive subjects in a safe, neutral environment."

During the workshops, graduate students from Purdue's Division of Theatre act out several scenarios with a faculty facilitator leading a question-and-answer session after each scene. The performers remain in-character for the discussions, which allows for a greater range of subject matter to be introduced. Participants then are given a list of action steps they can take to promote cultural awareness in their classrooms.

Wadsworth expects the impact to be widespread.

"Because this is the first time the cultural awareness workshops have been offered, we have no data on what the results in the classroom will be," Wadsworth admits. "But we did see a definite improvement in the proportion of B.S. degrees earned by female engineering students after the gender equity workshops were in place for a few years."

As part of her work with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Wadsworth demonstrated the gender equity workshops at a number of campuses and higher education conferences last year. Soon other colleges and universities were contacting her to find out how the program could be implemented on their own campuses, and demand became so great that Purdue made it available on videotape for $150.

"Our gender equity materials have been purchased by more than half the engineering schools in the United States," Wadsworth says. "We have no reason to believe that the cultural awareness workshops won't be similarly received. In fact, they could turn out to be even more popular, because it's a prominent issue for all disciplines, not just science and engineering."

Purdue is planning to produce a videotape and facilitator booklet for the culture awareness workshops as well.

Source: Emily Wadsworth, (765) 494-6611e-mail,

Writer: Sharon Bowker, (765) 494-2077; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Kim Wagner (left), a graduate student in theater from Frankfort, Ky., portrays the teaching assistant during a demonstration of Purdue's cultural awareness classroom climate workshops. The interactive theater presentation allows participants to discuss sensitive topics with the actors and a faculty facilitator. Wagner's "students" are (left to right) Tammy Birchfield, a senior in theater education from Crawfordsville, Ind., Wunji Lau, a graduate student in creative writing from Stillwell, Okla., and Halimat Alabi, a sophomore engineering major from Kansas City, Kan. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)
Color photo, electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Wadsworth.TATraining
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