Questions from Colleagues: Q&A with Tom Leathem

The McWhorter School of Building Science is pleased to announce that Dr. Tom Leathem has been promoted to associate professor.

BSCI faculty Tom Leathem

Dr. Leathem, a J.E. Wilborn Endowed Professor, was also named an Auburn University Biggio Faculty Fellow for 2020–21. He holds a bachelor’s degree in construction management from Western Illinois University, a Master of Design-Build from Auburn and a Ph.D. in curriculum and assessment from Mississippi State University. Dr. Leathem is the editor for the proceedings of the Associated Schools of Construction’s Annual International Conference.

Dr. Leathem, a renowned educator and pedagogical enthusiast, answers questions about education in the age of COVID from his colleagues.

How do you see the experiences of dealing with the current pandemic affecting construction education in the future? 
– Richard Burt, Ph.D., Head, McWhorter School of Building Science

I think a lot of us in construction education have done a really good job of trying to bring the real-world construction professional environment into the classroom remotely. The pandemic has forced us in many ways to try things we’ve been thinking about for a long time but were too afraid to try in the past. In some ways it’s given us an opportunity to experiment without the concern of the consequences of failure. I have no doubt that some of the things this pandemic has forced us to try will be around long after this whole thing is over. I think there’s going to be a certain level of student expectation that’s going to exist that we as educators are going to have to evaluate. For example, will students just come to expect that in-person class sessions will always be recorded and available to them? As educators, we’re going to be the ones who have to assess these things and determine what provides the best learning opportunity.

Trying to organize a job site visit now is definitely a lot harder. And in a lot of cases, if you have a class of 30 students, that almost becomes such an insurmountable issue that you just can’t do it. Then we’re forced to look at what other options we have, like a live streamed virtual tour of a job site.

I think this pandemic is going to advance the future of construction education. We’re going to be a lot nimbler in how we offer and deliver the courses, and because of that it’s going to create opportunities for more individuals to access these learning opportunities. So I think there’s a lot of good that’s going to come out of it.

As a Biggio faculty fellow, you’ll be leading student feedback focus groups and sharing the findings with faculty. How do you plan to “focus” these focus groups? What specific themes are your priority, and why?
– Karen Rogers, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, College of Architecture, Design and Construction

In these focus groups, we address the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities within an instructor’s course. The two most important points to me about these sessions are that this is a completely voluntary thing, that teachers have proactively reached out to the Biggio Center seeking insight to help elevate their teaching, and that everything that the students say is completely anonymous so they can feel comfortable to provide honest actionable feedback about the class. The three questions that we ask the students are: what’s working for your learning in this class, what could be working better for your learning in this class and what do you think you could do better as a student to improve your learning in this class? Focusing the sessions in this way helps engage the students as participants in the creation of their learning environment while fostering a stronger student–teacher connection.

What was nice last semester with Zoom is that we were asking the students to have these discussions in breakout rooms. It’s fairly private there; I’m not even a part of those discussions. So when we give the faculty member feedback, they’re getting my summary from the discussion and the specific comments that the students have written down in their breakout rooms. The essence of the entire thing is about trying to improve the learning experience for the students.

How do you plan to share what you learn as a Biggio Faculty Fellow with others in the college?
– C. Ben Farrow, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and International Programs, College of Architecture, Design and Construction

When this whole thing started at the beginning of the semester, I really didn’t know what my role was going to be. But now that we’re starting to get our foothold, I’ve got a better sense of the things that we’re doing. In my department, I’m going to be communicating some of this information through our faculty meetings. I’m going to pull up the Biggio Center’s website and show there are some really great things here for faculty. In addition to facilitating the student feedback focus groups, I am participating in a faculty learning community called Pandemic Pedagogy. It’s really just an opportunity for faculty to come together a few times over the semester through Zoom and talk about things they’re dealing with related to this pandemic and their teaching. The Be Well Weekly Series that we’re doing is something that many of us would probably be interested in; it will cover a number of topics with guest speakers. There’s one in that series called ‘Teaching with Tots,’ for those of us trying to navigate working from home with children.

My first priority will be communicating this information in the form of reminders through email, and I definitely want to get a strategy set up for how we will get the information to the faculty. I know all the different units are having Zoom faculty meetings, so I’m hoping there may be opportunity to share some things that way.”

How do you define excellent teaching and how do you strive to improve as a teacher?
– Lindsay Doukopoulos, Ph.D., Associate Director of Educational Development, Biggio Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning

To me, excellent teaching is about providing the best learning experience you can for your students. And for me that means constantly trying to improve. I came into teaching after being in industry for quite a while. I probably wasn’t even three or four weeks into that first semester of teaching, and it was really resonating with me that I know a lot about construction, but I’m not sure that I know how to teach it well. I was constantly wondering, what are my students getting out of this? Are they even really interested in my class? Do they dread my class?

And so that’s really what influenced me to get my Ph.D., because I wanted to be a better teacher and I wanted to understand more about what being a good teacher was all about. One of the things that evolved in that process was recognizing that I’ve got to understand what the students’ perspective is, and the only way I can do that is to get feedback from them. So I do ask my students a lot because I genuinely want every one of them to get as much out of my classes as they can. I’ve got a passion for construction, it’s just in me. It’s who I am and as much of that as I can transfer to my students, that’s what I want to do. My goal is to be developing that passion within them for this profession.

The other thing that I think also defines excellent teaching is being a good supporter of your colleagues and being somebody that’s willing to listen to ideas. I love when other colleagues of mine come to me asking me questions, and I help them in any way I can. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that not only within building science but also now as a Biggio Faculty Fellow. It’s allowing me to do that across the university in different units, which is awesome. I love that.

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