Science Teaching: Feasting with Faculty

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Provided

Feasting with Faculty

From left: Marinda Li Wu, president of the American Chemical Society, Chemistry Prof. Marcy Towns and Purdue student Caleb Sommers in Wiley Dining Court.

Technology helps faculty keep their large lecture hall classes alert. Most classrooms come equipped with projection screens to display their lessons digitally. Instructors are equipped with microphones so the students in the back row of a 500-seat lecture hall can hear. But sometimes students still get lost.

Knowing that students often perform better in more intimate confines as well as when a connection has been forged between student and instructor, the College of Science created an interesting –– and often delicious –– concept called “Feasting with Faculty.”

Initiated two years ago, the program allows a small group or even an individual student to join their professor for lunch or dinner at one of Purdue’s dining courts. The students meet up with their professor for a meal and informal conversation. Students are allowed to feast as many times as they want throughout the semester.

“I have a chance to interact with students in a very informal context away from the classroom and lecture hall,” says David Eichinger, associate professor of biology education and one of the College of Science’s faculty participants in the program. “They get a chance to interact with one of their professors in a very casual environment. We can talk about our course, or just learn more about each others’ interests, past experiences and families.”

In the classroom, the students are on Eichinger’s turf, but he believes the roles are reversed with Feasting with Faculty, which helps with the students’ comfort levels.

“Prior to being involved in the program, I had only visited one dining facility one time,” Eichinger recalls. “Since our course is taken mostly by first-year students, I am better able to relate to their overall experience as new students.”

The dining experience is vastly different than Eichinger and other feasting faculty’s undergraduate days. Over the past several years, Purdue has built new facilities or revamped pre-existing ones with several different food stations with cuisine from around the world. Vegetarian options are no longer just a baked potato. You want waffles at 1 p.m.? No sweat. A fresh stir-fry prepared right in front of you as you pile several slices of pizza onto your plate? It can happen.

Despite the good food, first meetings can be a little timid, so Eichinger often brings up his time in the Peace Corps and experiences overseas to open up conversation.

“I have had several students tell me that they have always wanted to do something like the Peace Corps once they graduate,” Eichinger says, “and I can share information about my time as a volunteer and try to answer some of their questions about living and working overseas in a developing country.”

Most students warm up quickly and become feasting regulars. As interesting as the lunch conversation may be, the best results are back in the classroom or lecture hall. Grades and participation tend to improve after a feast with a faculty member.

“I have had several students start coming to my office hours after having had a chance to have lunch with them,” Eichinger says. “I guess they feel more comfortable coming with questions and concerns after having met during lunch and seeing that I am a regular person in addition to being a professor. I think this is especially true for first-year students who are still trying to figure out the whole college scene.”

Other faculty feasters include Ellen Gundlach of Statistics; Chen Yang of Physics; Marcy Towns of Chemistry, a 2013 Murphy Award winner for undergraduate teaching; and Dennis Minchella of Biological Sciences, also associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Science. All seven of Science’s
departments have participated through more than a dozen professors overall.

Eichinger opened up his introduction to biology classes aimed at elementary education majors (BIOL 205 and 206) for Feasting with Faculty. Education major Alissa Salazar-Sharp, now a junior, feasted throughout her sophomore year.

“I participated in Feasting with Faculty because I thought it would be a good chance to get to know my professor outside of the lecture hall,” Salazar-Sharp remembers. “I find it to be easier to understand someone if you make a personal connection with them, especially when it comes to teachers.”

Students sign up with their instructor. Eichinger reports having lunch with as many as 30 different undergrads in a semester –– proving that students are hungry to connect with their professors.