Graduate students recognized for exceptional teaching of undergraduates

May 27, 2021

Frank Gao's nuclear chemistry lab on Zoom
Frank Gao and his students having fun learning nuclear chemistry

A graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, Frank Gao, has been named among the 2020 winners of the Wayne C. Booth Prize for Excellence in Teaching, awarded annually to graduate students for outstanding instruction of undergraduates.

Students and faculty in the College nominated the recipients for the prize, which was established in 1991 in honor of Booth, PhD’50, the late UChicago faculty member who was one of the 20th century’s most influential literary critics.

Additionally, three graduate students have been awarded the Physical Sciences Teaching Prizes for 2020-21: Gourav Khullar of the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Sean Lee of the Department of Chemistry, and Victor Zhang of the Department of Physics.

The Teaching Prize is based on nominations from students who shared compelling evidence of honorees’ outstanding contributions made to their education. Excellence in teaching is a fundamental goal of the University of Chicago and these nominees stood out for the quality and success of their efforts. Each will receive $1,000 as part of the award. 

The annual reception to celebrate the winners of the Physical Sciences Teaching Prizes is traditionally held in late Spring Quarter, but will be postponed until gatherings resume on campus.

“Now more than ever we recognize the importance of raising examples of people in our community who exemplify the true joy that can come from excellent teaching,” said Professor Stuart Kurtz, Master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division. “I thank Gourav, Sean, and Victor for inspiring all our Teaching Assistants and students to be the best at what they do.”

Learn more about this year’s prize recipients below:

Frank Gao

Frank Gao
Frank Gao, Chemistry

Wayne C. Booth Prize winner Frank Gao is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry. He conducts computational genomics and immunology research in the Riesenfeld Group within the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. 

From Autumn 2019 to Spring 2020, Gao taught three quarters of Comprehensive General Chemistry. “This year-long sequence teaches students physical, inorganic chemistry, and quantitative analysis skills at a much higher difficulty than a typical freshman course,” he said.

Gao believes a student-centered approach sets the tone for classroom interaction. “First, I try to teach in line with students’ interests and backgrounds by discussing the materials at a colloquial level in the beginning and then gradually moving beyond the level textbooks demand. Second, I try to foster an environment where students are comfortable saying ‘I do not know’ or ‘I do not understand’ so we can collectively tackle confusions early on instead of letting the lack of understandings accumulate,” he said.

He values giving students the total freedom to challenge him and one another in a respectful and orderly manner. “Scientific discoveries are done through heated debates and thoughtful conversations instead of being fed notions of truth by an authoritative figure,” he explained.

Ultimately, Gao’s dream is to become a professor at a liberal arts college. “In particular, I want to introduce the joy of learning chemistry and carrying out scientific research to students who may not have adequate educational resources growing up,” he said.

Gourav Khullar

Gourav Khullar
Gourav Khullar, Astronomy & Astrophysics

A PhD candidate in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics conducting research for Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, Gourav Khullar, favors a teaching approach that relies on collective experiences and expertise to chart a collaborative path forward. “I also like to meet students where they are,” he said.

As the Teaching Assistant for the two-quarter Field Course in Astronomy and Astrophysics, in Winter and Spring 2021, Khullar supported Prof. Michael Gladders in the teaching of a unique course-offering that asks astronomy majors to build a research collaboration from scratch. Based on the pedagogical framework called Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE), the class formed the collaboration COOL-LAMPS — ChicagO Optically-selected (gravitational) Lenses - Located At the Margins of Public Surveys. Their task was to survey public imaging databases in search of lensed galaxies. 

In a very exciting turn of events, the young astrophysicists helped discover a galaxy that dates back to a time when the universe was only 1.2 billion years old, about one-tenth of its current age. The remarkable find was confirmed by observations from ground-based instruments: the Magellan Telescopes in Chile and the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. It was a feat that was celebrated across campus.

According to Khullar, success in a collaborative learning environment is possible when teaching is inclusive, taking into consideration everyone’s strengths and interests. “I have learnt a lot from inclusive pedagogical methods—for example, culturally responsive teaching and universal design for learning—that allow me to be flexible and engage with students in a wide variety of ways,” he said. “Only by creating and sustaining a welcoming and equitable environment can we enable students to give their hundred percent in the classroom and their research.”

In the future, Khullar hopes for an astronomy career that allows him to conduct research and teach. “Teaching, learning from, and collaborating with undergraduate students at UChicago has been one of the most exciting aspects of my PhD work here,” he said.

Sean Lee

Sean Lee
Sean Lee, Chemistry

As an instructor for Comprehensive General Chemistry I, II & III during remote learning, Chemistry PhD candidate Sean Lee decided to set his teaching preferences aside and instead ask the students how he could adapt virtual learning to their needs. 

“I thought I could either let myself be tied down by the limitations of virtual platforms or really take advantage of the environment and be much more flexible in terms of content delivery,” he said. “Of course, I could not have done this without the help of my students, who were absolutely receptive and supportive of me throughout this unusual time, so I want to thank them.”

In the virtual classroom, Lee had two goals in mind beyond a mastery of general chemistry: students would know how to ask great questions and participate in an inclusive learning environment. “I encouraged students to ask lots of questions and also help each other,” he said. What can be a very challenging course for the mostly first-year students became a space where “students encouraged each other’s intellectual and character growth.”

Lee hopes to continue as an educator, emulating the undergraduate chemistry professors who supported his success. “Dr. Beth Schomber, my first college chemistry professor from Northern Virginia Community College, was an absolute inspiration and role model,” he said. “She showed me that being professional and approachable do not have to be mutually exclusive, and her passion and humility to always do right by her students was something I will never forget.”

He recalled another mentor at University of Virginia, Dr. Brooks Pate, who demonstrated patience with inquisitive undergraduates. Lee learned to value inclusive conversations between students and teachers. “He always emphasized not only how to think as a scientist but how to act as a contributing member of the society,” he said.

Victor Zhang

Victor Zhang
Victor Zhang, Physics

For Victor Zhang, PhD candidate in physics, running successful Physics 140 labs and discussions has meant finding ways to make concepts exciting for prospective physics majors. His approach has been to take the physical phenomena taught in the lecture and share many commonly encountered examples for the students to discuss.

“I’ve noticed that students often become proficient with the math pretty quickly, but take a bit longer in achieving a solid conceptual understanding of the physics,” he said.
“To help them develop the latter, I ask them conceptual questions and connect them to things they may have seen in their daily experiences.”

During college, Zhang found that the learning environment was extremely important to his success. “I tried to make sure my sessions were more like an open conversation with the students rather than a lecture, so they would feel comfortable saying whatever they wanted to contribute,” he said.

“I’ve been fortunate to have many motivated and curious students in my sections, and since they are so eager to learn, these conceptual questions easily stir up a conversation between the students and me, which always adds more depth to both our understanding,” he said. “I really enjoy those moments, since usually I end up learning something new!”

Zhang has not decided if he will pursue academia or industry, but hopes that wherever he contributes his talents it will be a similarly creative and open environment.

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