PSD Spotlight: Britni Ratliff

February 21, 2024

Britni Ratliff

Britni Ratliff is the Director of STEM Pedagogy for the PSD, Associate Master for the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division (PSCD), and Senior Instructional Professor in the Chemistry Department. Her family moved around the south a bit when she was growing up, but Britni primarily grew up in a north suburb of Nashville, Tennessee. A PSD alumna, Britni has spent the past 18 years in the University of Chicago Chemistry Department. We interviewed Britni about her interests and experiences.

When did you join UChicago?

I earned my PhD in Physical Chemistry here, conducting experimental studies of gas phase, bimolecular reactions that proceed through radical intermediates with Prof. Laurie Butler. During my graduate study, I was part of the instructional team piloting what has developed into the current Chemistry Collaborative Learning Programs, CLiC and CLOC. After graduation, I accepted a position as a Lecturer in the Chemistry Department and Director of the Chemistry Collaborative Learning Programs. I worked as Senior Lecturer/Senior Instructional Professor in Chemistry until my recent appointment as Director of STEM Pedagogy for the Physical Sciences Division and Associate Master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division in July 2023.

People can come to me for …

  • a lively conversation about anything related to teaching and learning.

I enjoy serving as a thought partner in the design, implementation, or assessment of graduate or undergraduate instructional practices. I specialize in the implementation of evidence-based, active learning pedagogies. I’m probably best known for the Chemistry Collaborative Learning courses, but I’ve also “flipped” the classroom, designed inclusive curricular materials, codeveloped a GTA training course, and integrated technology and alternative grading schemes in my UChicago General Chemistry courses.

  • an equally lively conversation about animals (more specifically, the training of animals) or kids.

I took a crash course in the joys and challenges of puppy-hood when I raised a litter of nine puppies birthed by my foster dog. I adopted the mother dog and one of the puppies. They inspired me to pursue a formal canine education. I completed a Canine Behavior and Training program, earned my CPDT-KA, and became a Certified Nose Work instructor (CNWI) through the National Association of Canine Scent Work, NACSW. I have both taught and participated in basic obedience, tricks, agility, and K9 Nose Work® classes.

My passion for dog training and sports has taken a backburner as I am now immersed in motherhood. I am proud of this video that I made of my dogs to announce my first child. Now, I have three young children who are lucky(?) to have a mother who is constantly trying to teach them new things or modify their behavior with reinforcement protocols.

CLiC Workshop
CLiC Workshop

What is the Collaborative Learning program?

The Collaborative Learning program refers to team-based workshop courses that are offered in parallel to lecture-based parent courses. Students in Collaborative Learning courses meet weekly for these team problem-solving workshops. The workshop facilitator is called the “Team Leader.” Team Leaders are upper-level undergraduate students who have previously excelled in the course and are receiving ongoing training in collaborative facilitation strategies. Team Leaders function as a coach, guiding up to three teams of students with questions as they interpret and apply the parent course materials.

The success of the Collaborative Learning courses relies on the creation of a safe and supportive classroom community where students can take intellectual risks while engaging with the challenging course material. Participation in Collaborative Learning workshops requires formal enrollment and thus a commitment to attend and participate weekly. 

The Collaborative Learning program started in Chemistry, with CLiC (Collaborative Learning in General Chemistry) and CLOC (Collaborative Learning in Organic Chemistry). Over a third of the students enrolled in the Chemistry courses enroll in the optional CLiC/CLOC courses. In recent years, Statistics has integrated Collaborative Learning (Statistics Learning is Collaborative, SLiC) in several introductory level courses, including Statistical Methods and Applications, its largest lecture-based course. In Fall 2023, there were nearly 400 undergraduate students enrolled in PSD Collaborative Learning courses. Student surveys of course participants report that participation in the Collaborative Learning program increases their confidence and enhances their ability to explain and understand scientific ideas.

Most recently, two undergraduate Molecular Engineering majors who were former CLOC students spearheaded the addition of peer-led problem-solving workshops to select Molecular Engineering Courses. Coined CLiME, Collaborative Learning in Molecular Engineering, these grass-roots workshops offer support sessions for students in Principles of Engineering Analysis I-II, and the Molecular Engineering Thermodynamics courses.

In response to student calls for greater expansion, the Collaborative Learning program is being further integrated into courses across the Physical and Biological Sciences Divisions. Through their generous philanthropy, the Neubauer family has allowed the University to launch the Phoenix STEM Program, which has a primary goal of increasing the retention of STEM majors. This program will integrate with existing Collaborative Learning programs, like Chemistry and Statistics, and support further collaborative learning into Physics, Math, Biology, and Computer Science. In my new role, I work closely with the Phoenix STEM Instructional professors in each of these disciplines to develop a collaborative learning model that meets their departmental needs.

What do you enjoy about being a part of the PSD community?

As I embark on my new role as Associate Master of PSCD and Director of STEM Pedagogy, I am excited to have the opportunity to extend my reach beyond Chemistry and, more broadly, contribute to the development of instructional practices and enhancement of student learning. The PSD community is vibrant, filled with intelligent and impassioned individuals who are dedicated to supporting our UChicago students. I aim to champion their amazing accomplishments and strive to foster collaboration among teaching faculty and staff, where we can pool our expertise to create a richer learning environment. Moreover, it is a unique privilege to work directly with PSD students as they discover their passions and carve out their academic paths.

What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?

Diversity is the bringing together of individuals with unique perspectives, backgrounds, and identities. Inclusion is creating an environment that values, respects, and even celebrates diversity and further integrates these diverse contributions to create a product that is better than the sum of its parts. Valuing and supporting both diversity and inclusion in our institution provides our students the agency to identify their goals and empowers them to pursue a path to reach those goals. Diversity and inclusion deeply enhance not only the experience of individuals but also the greater community. I am deeply committed to fostering diversity and inclusion in all that I do.

Lucy (left) and Bear
Lucy (left) and Bear

Do you have pets, and if so, what are their names?

We’ve recently lost a cat and a dog and are down to one elderly dog, Lucy, and an African Grey Parrot, Safari.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Or, what do you want to do when you retire?

I was the first woman in my family to go to college, much less graduate school. I didn’t really have a vision of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Instead, I pursued my interests and passions along the way. I had many excellent, inclusive mentors along the way. Through college, I was blind to the fact that I was a woman in STEM. I felt equally valued and respected, which empowered me to continue to graduate studies. However, on some graduate school visits, I did experience feeling marginalized and dismissed. As a graduate student at UChicago, I benefited from the mentorship of several faculty members who laid the path for me as a woman in STEM, including my PhD advisor, Prof. Emerita Laurie Butler, a pioneer in her field and an exemplary role model as a female scientist. I feel like I’m still on the journey of “growing up” and eager to discover what comes next.

When I decide that I’m finished “growing up,” I’d love to focus on traveling, exploring the outdoors, and learning more about other cultures.

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