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Erika Chelales loves teaching. It’s one big reason she is pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. While at Duke, she has gone above and beyond her doctoral program’s two required teaching assistantships. She has delivered guest lectures and led labs. She is pursuing a Certificate in College Teaching (CCT) through The Graduate School.

Until this summer, though, she had not had a course that she could call her own.

“The TA-ships are great ways to get involved in teaching, but I had not yet had the opportunity to be the instructor of record for a course,” Chelales said, “I was really curious about what it would be like to be the instructor, to be creating the course, designing all of the assignments, and be the one in charge of how the students are learning and what ways I’m trying to engage them.”

 "It really solidified my passion for teaching and made me realize  that I do want to teach  in the future as part of  my career."

She found that opportunity over the summer in the Duke Pre-College Programs, which offer hundreds of academically motivated high school and middle school students from around the world the chance to take enrichment courses and to “test-drive” the Duke experience.

Pre-College students take three-week courses taught by individuals affiliated with Duke. This summer was the first time Duke graduate students proposed and taught Pre-College courses. Sally Starrfield, director of the Pre-College Programs, worked with Graduate School Assistant Dean Hugh Crumley and Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Molly Goldwasser to recruit graduate students as instructors.

“What we’ve found is that Duke graduate students who have taken the Certificate in College Teaching program already have a lot of pedagogical knowledge, and they have the subject-area expertise that we need for teaching our students,” Starrfield said. “Also, graduate students can make the classes more signature Duke than if I hired a professor from another university. And since they are Duke students, they already know the Duke resources. They know the Duke library system, they know the Duke labs, so they can expose our students to that.”

In turn, the Pre-College Programs benefit the graduate student instructors, said Crumley, who directs the CCT program.

“Obviously graduate students gain teaching experience through TA-ships as part of their training, but Duke also has many other avenues for them to further develop their teaching skills,” he said. “The Pre-College Programs, for instance, present an opportunity to teach a self-designed course in a different setting and with different students than what one usually gets through departmental TA-ships, and it can be used to fulfill CCT requirements.”

Three Graduate School students took advantage of that opportunity this summer: Chelales, Katie Hatstat (Ph.D.’21 Chemistry), and Jasmine Hughes (a master’s student in global health). Before the instructors started, the program staff walked them through potential challenges, offered strategies and tools, and provided time for them to work with their teaching assistants on the course material.

“They really put us in a position where we were prepared to teach, and then, once we were teaching, they were really helpful with any problems that arose,” Chelales said.

For her course, Chelales designed a three-week experience that exposed students to the human-centered design process while they identified global health challenges and engineered solutions. As she designed and taught the course, she had to adapt to the fact that not only was she was teaching high schoolers for the first time, but they also spanned a range of ages, backgrounds, and levels of baseline knowledge.

Also, while she would normally have students doing hands-on building in maker spaces for a design course, this summer’s Pre-College classes had to be virtual due to the pandemic. So instead, she had her students draw up CAD designs for their ideas and pitch them to a panel of stakeholders, Shark Tank-style.

“The students are not getting a grade for this, so they are fueled by their own intrinsic motivation and excitement,” Chelales said. “They are spending their summer doing this, so I wanted it to be something that they are really excited about, and I wanted them to learn about the material and be passionate about it in the way that I feel so passionate about it."

Judging by her students’ work, mission accomplished. Chelales was blown away by the numerous creative ideas her students came up with. One team, for instance, proposed a low-cost way to clean reusable feminine hygiene products and protect privacy for females in low- and middle-income countries. Another team designed a more efficient and low-cost system that helps families in low-income regions of South Africa save water by filtering wastewater from household chores and reusing it for subsistence agriculture.

CAD diagrams of water filtration and recycling system
Diagrams of the water filtration and recycling system
that some of Erika Chelales's students designed.

“They had beautiful CAD designs; I was so impressed,” Chelales said. “It seemed like they really enjoyed that process, and a lot of them said, ‘Oh we wish we could actually build it and prototype it.’ ”

In fact, the team that designed the water recycling system is doing exactly that. The students are working with the IGNITE group in the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies—which is led by Professor Nimmi Ramanujam, Chelales’s faculty adviser—to build a prototype.

Those kinds of outcomes, Chelales said, made it an “awesome and meaningful” experience.

“It felt like really high-impact teaching, and the students feel like they got a lot out of it,” she said. “It really solidified my passion for teaching and made me realize that I do want to teach in the future as part of my career. I will definitely look back on this as a fundamental point in my career trajectory.”

Interested in Teaching in the Pre-College Programs?

Duke Pre-College is seeking Duke graduate students for paid positions as instructors to design and teach engaging, challenging, non-credit, certificate-based, 3-week online courses for high school students in July and August 2022. For more information, contact Sally Starrfield at

There will be an online information session on September 30 at 2:00 p.m. for graduate students interested in this opportunity.

Duke Pre-College course proposal form