UPstarters, an innovative way to grow our timber and improve teaching skills, has grown in leaps and bounds and continues empowering teaching staff in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS).
The UPstarters, initiated by Prof Paulette Bloomer, NAS Deputy Dean for Teaching and Learning, consists of early career teaching staff with less teaching experience. This initiative was based on acting as a community of practice per the suggestions in the National Framework for Enhancing Academics as University Teachers from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). The group is identified as emerging scholars in the Framework and was started in August 2020 when COVID-19 was real and the "new normal" was online teaching.
They meet monthly, and a needs analysis was first on the to-do list after the first meeting in 2020. Dr Ina Louw, the coordinator, presented the survey results soon after the first meeting, and the way forward was planned. She hosted a presentation on ‘Active learning’, and they also attended a cultural workshop in the next month.
During 2021 and 2022, Dr Louw continued coordinating the UPstarters and identified topics addressed by invited speakers. Discussions were held on how to incorporate the SDGs in the curriculum, balancing teaching and research, attracting funding, and navigating your own personality with those of others. Further discussions were held on time management, career development, inquiry-based learning, and postgraduate supervision.
By the end of 2022, Prof Bloomer decided to empower the UP starters members and give them more responsibilities for their group. An executive committee was formed to represent each cluster, which are Brian Nxala (Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology), Robert Mangani (Plant and Soil Sciences), Renate Thiede (Statistics) and Rimbi Shangange (Animal Science). They are coordinating events, and clusters take turns to host the event. The idea is to introduce a topic and allow the group to discuss it.
The topics they have selected so far in 2023 were quite exciting. Discussions about collaborating nationally in postgraduate supervision, experiential learning in a department, and games and simulations to motivate students went well. We also had a lively conversation about Chat GPT.
The suggestion was made to find mentors to support the group and individuals, and the mentors were again chosen to represent the clusters. We have Dr Pam de Waal, who has been in the group since 2021, but we have added Dr Nadine Sonnenberg, Dr Eder Kikianty, Mr Lindo Magagula, and Prof Nerhene Davis.
The idea is not to have only NAS colleagues in the group; we welcome everybody who feels they can and want to improve their teaching and join a community of practice with like-minded academics.