June 24, 2020
Spring 2020 Physical Sciences Graduate Student Teaching Prizes Announced
Three PSD students have been awarded the Physical Sciences Teaching Prize for excellence in undergraduate teaching. Awardees include Jesus Alvarez and Clare Keenan of the Department of Chemistry and Aaron Slipper of the Department of Mathematics.
Prof. Stuart Kurtz, Master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division, announced in a message to the Division: “Excellence in teaching is a fundamental goal of the University, and Clare, Jesus, and Aaron exemplify this standard by fostering a love of learning in classes that students were previously fearful of, by expressing belief in their students’ abilities to overcome adversity and challenges, by creatively and persistently ensuring that students were mastering concepts, and generally by maintaining a level of commitment to their students’ success that goes above and beyond expectations.” He concluded the Division is grateful for all of the ways they have enhanced our students’ educational experiences and advanced the mission of the University.
Winners are nominated each year by undergraduate students to honor exceptional graduate student teaching assistants. Nominators provide compelling evidence of outstanding contributions that were made to undergraduate education.
Each winner affected their undergraduate students through unique teaching styles. Clare Keenan taught General Chemistry and said, “The most important thing to me in teaching is creating a space where students don’t feel the need to understand everything the first time they hear it. Asking questions about the material doesn’t mean you aren’t good at chemistry.”
Jesus Alvarez leveraged his role as a graduate student to help reach his students in Organic Chemistry, saying “sometimes professors are far removed from where students are at, so I try to think about what I found difficult as a student and what helped me during that time.”
Keenan also spoke to the unique role that graduate teaching assistants play in courses. “It can be hard to talk to the professor and maybe their lecture style isn’t working for you or is difficult to follow. Teaching assistants can be more approachable and help students feel more comfortable while working to make the lectures more accessible. I had a lot of great teaching assistants in my undergraduate education and I think that helped me be a better teaching assistant,” she said.
To build an enriching environment, Keenan strongly encouraged office hour attendance. “I was really happy that a lot of students would come to office hours and found it a helpful resource. Students should know that attending office hours isn’t a sign of weakness,” she said.
Mathematics student Aaron Slipper taught first-years Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) Calculus. “It’s a very exciting classroom model,” he said. “As opposed to having a preceptor give lectures, the students teach one another through presentations that they themselves prepare. If other students have questions, the presenter or other students attempt to answer, and lively discussion ensues.”
The IBL Calculus students could consult the instructor, Sarah Ziesler, or Slipper, as course facilitator, for pointers in office hours, but the students did most of the talking in class. “Sarah and I were relegated to the role of either quiet-sage or peanut-gallery-commentator,” he said. “For many students this was their first foray into formal, ‘proof-based’ mathematics. At times I felt like an ambassador, introducing students to this vast and glorious new world.”
Beyond teaching the material, the three awardees strive to help students change the way they think about learning. In regards to teaching Organic Chemistry, Alvarez noted that “many students are pre-med and so their approach to learning can be more focused on memorization, but chemistry doesn’t work that way. You have to get a feel for why things are happening and build intuition. I teach my students to approach situations with a big picture view and see how the new problem fits into this picture.”
Slipper said he aspires to be a teacher who supplies the big “philosophical” ideas that underlie the technical details of arguments. “There is a serious danger in teaching a formal mathematics course,” he said. “The profoundly beautiful content and ideas may drown in the sea of formalism.” Slipper’s gestalt is more open, suggesting a potential for calculus that most students would not have encountered in high school: “with too much precision, too much caution, too much focus on subtle peripheral detail, students may begin to feel mentally straitjacketed. This is perverse, since knowledge of the rigorous foundations of mathematics ought to be the ultimate form of intellectual liberation!”
Both Alvarez and Keenan are finishing their first year towards a Ph.D. and are excited to figure out what their future may hold. “Being busy finishing up my first year in the program, I haven’t had much time to think about what I want to do in the future," Alvarez laughed. “I enjoyed teaching, but as of now, I think conducting research in a national lab is my goal,” he said.
“I hope to stay in academia. Besides my research, I do foresee myself teaching in some capacity,” Keenan said. “I think that chemistry can be intimidating and General Chemistry can be seen as a weed-out class, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be taught in a more accessible way.”
Slipper, who just finished his second year in the mathematics program and studies number theory, says research is his primary focus but he would be thrilled to teach. In the meantime, he remains inspired by IBL because every student is a teacher and tests what they know against other students. “Learning is not just about getting the final answer,” he said. “It is a process of refinement, of testing one’s ideas. It takes some courage to expose one’s thinking to review by peers, and to potentially expose error. I feel the same way about teaching in general.”
With these awards being granted at the end of Spring 2020 quarter, Kurtz made a special recognition of how these graduate instructors had to transition their courses to online and endure more challenges than ever before: “We recognize the importance of raising examples of people in our community who exemplify the true joy that can come from excellent teaching.”
Adapted from an article by Sheila Evans posted on the Department of Chemistry website.