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An infectious enthusiasm

Charles Beck readily admits that knowledge in his subject area — the brain and behavior — is transient. Information is fragile and ephemeral, today's "facts" may be unreliable, and accepted theory may be invalid or quickly outdated.

"I get around the problem of teaching material that will self-destruct or that the students won't remember in a few years by teaching them to be self-instructors," says the Rutherford-Award-winning U of A psychology professor. He hopes that through the independent study he encourages his students will acquire not only perishable knowledge but enduring skills.

Beck's students develop research and composition skills by conducting library information searches and writing papers on subjects of particular interest to them or relevance to their field of study—whether it is how AIDS, alcoholism, or Parkinson's disease affects the brain. Through such projects Beck's students learn not only material specific to their particular course, but develop the underlying analytical, writing, and research skills applicable to any course of study. In addition, Beck says that by analyzing research materials on their own students become critical and skeptical of accepting inadequate or incorrect information.

Emphasizing general skills along with specific knowledge is a teaching approach that works particularly well for Beck in his "service-oriented" undergraduate psychology courses, which must satisfy the needs of students from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.

In his 23 years at the University, Beck has taught a variety of psychology courses, ranging from large introductorv classes to small senior-level labs. For years he taught the only brain anatomy lab course offered outside the Faculty of Medicine.

Beck has previously received recognition for his fine teaching with the Faculty of Science Excellent Teaching Award in 1991. "Although his courses are demanding," says Associate Dean of Science Graham Chambers, "the way he presents the material, and the ways in which he involves the students makes the learning process exciting."

From a visit with the psychology professor it is easy to see why students find him such an engaging instructor. From the raw materials of a recent experiment — rats, Corn Puffs, and an ingenious feeding apparatus — Beck provides a colorful explanation, dotted with definitions, interwoven with layman's terms, and backed by the thread of his enthusiasm.

Infectious enthusiasm is a useful quality to have when teaching undergraduate courses, where interaction is difficult because of large class sizes and limited personal contact with individual students. Beck says that, over the years, he has developed an approach to deal with the limited opportunity for personal contact with students in his large undergraduate classes: "I treat them as graduate students who I don't see very much. Within limitations of time and resources, I ask the same things and I expect the same things as I would from graduate students."

Former student Lawrence Svenson, who pursued research as an undergraduate under Beck's guidance, says, "Dr. Beck is the best instructor I have had through the Faculty of Science. If it was not for [him] I do not believe I would have chosen the career path I am now choosing." Psychology colleague Jeffrey Bisanz says," [Beck's] graduate students, as well as undergraduates who participate in research with him, have nothing but praise for his careful and supportive supervision."

Beck recognizes that he is part of a University-wide "teaching team," and has nothing but praise for his campus colleagues in various departments, faculties, and facilities, such as the library. "With a student to teacher ratio of 90 to one, students learn more during the course of my class from other sources than they do from me. I'm the facilitator, the demander," says Beck.

Published Autumn 1993.

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