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Monday, August 25, 2014

How to Survive (and Excel) as a Graduate Student Instructor

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It's a critical task of academia to produce new educators for the future, but for many students starting graduate school this semester, the word inspires groans and feelings of dread.

The first graduate student teaching assignment might force you out of your comfort zone. It is true that teaching for the first time is a big adjustment, but with the right attitude and preparation, you might just
discover a skill you never knew you had.

To learn more about what makes a good graduate student instructor (GSI) and how to adjust to the position, I interviewed Dr. Ginger Shultz and Grace Winschel at the University of Michigan. Dr. Shultz (top photo) is a postdoctoral teaching fellow and educational researcher in the chemistry department with 4 years of experience working with freshman GSIs. Grace (bottom photo) is a 5th-year graduate student in Dr. Pavel Nagorny's lab and has also co-authored research on chemistry education with Dr. Shultz.

Dr. Shultz jumped right into teaching when she got to graduate school, serving as a GSI for General Chemistry during her first year as a Ph. D. student. "I was intimidated to teach [Organic Chemistry] or [Physical Chemistry]," she writes. "I really sold myself short because I was afraid." She also obtained a fellowship that enabled her to teach a hands-on science lecture once per week at elementary schools in her area. "Once I got over my initial fears, teaching turned out to be the easiest part of my first year of graduate school. After that it was just something else to balance."

Teaching is More than Lecturing; Teachers are More than Answer Banks

Shultz's experiences as a GSI contributed to her teaching philosophy. "I had it in my head that I had to know all of the answers. One time I gave a student a wrong answer and they complained to the instructor," she writes. Uh-oh. Big trouble coming, right?

Well, not really. "The instructor met with me and explained that I wasn't supposed to be providing students the answers. It's the teacher's job to model thinking for the students and to help them learn." Shultz challenges students by facilitating their thinking so that they guide themselves to the answers to their questions. She encourages the GSIs teaching in her classes to do the same. "Changing your thinking about your role as a teacher is the first step toward becoming a good one. Some people are naturals at teaching, but effective teaching can also be learned."

Grace Winschel is an experienced GSI and has worked closely with Dr. Shultz both in instruction and in education research. She echoes Dr. Shultz's sentiments. Even for experienced GSIs teaching within their field of study, it is possible to be stumped by a student's question. "Of course, it is ideal to know the answers," Winschel writes. "But if you don't know, you can say, 'This isn't my field, let me point to you some places I think you can find the answer,' or, 'I'm not 100% sure I'll give you the most thorough answer here, so why don't you come to my office hours and we'll work on it together?'" Winschel also suggests asking a student to pose the question to their lab group to see whether the students can collaborate and come up with a solution on their own.

While it is not the end of the world for a GSI not to know the answer to a question, Winschel does stress one thing: "Be helpful. That is the goal. We want to avoid you saying, 'I'm not answering that question because it's dumb and you should know the answer.'"

Advice for Your First Class

Whether you are teaching a lab section or a discussion/lecture, having to perform a new task in front of strangers can be very stressful. Dr. Shultz stresses that, when nerves are a problem, Socratic teaching is still your friend. "You're not helping students by giving them the answer. It takes some of the pressure off when you let go of that expectation." She goes on to say that students do not learn simply by sitting passively - "like Neo in The Matrix" - and likewise, faculty do not teach effectively simply by lecturing. "Modern educational psychology says that knowledge is constructed by the learner. Once you understand your role as an instructor - a facilitator of learning and not a transmitter of knowledge - you can be much more effective." Shultz suggests that teachers merely need to present material and construct an environment that is conducive to learning and to questioning, to students building their own knowledge, and that "ultimately, [students] are the architects of that knowledge."

Winschel has taught both labs and discussions at the University of Michigan and offers loads of advice for both. One important and relatively easy thing is to stay on top of your grading. "It's easy to not bother to grade your worksheets one afternoon, but if you're teaching two sessions a week with 20 students per section, it backs up really quickly until you are buried in worksheets and then you die." She also adds that keeping up with grading is helpful to the students, as they always know exactly how they are doing in the class. Nothing throws a student into panic mode more than receiving three weeks of failing-quality work all at one time - and it can lead to administrative problems as well.

Of course, basic people skills come in handy too. "I tend to be extremely peppy, and that works for me," writes Winschel. She adds that all personality types can make for great GSIs. However, it is always important to consider the image you project to your students. "From a student's perspective, GSIs can be a little intimidating, so having an abrasive approach to your [teaching] can be difficult for your students to handle. There's a difference between being sarcastic and being mean or unapproachable."

Lastly, GSIs should be prepared for the fact that the way students have the material presented to them in lecture might be very different from the way the GSI was taught at their undergraduate institution. That fact can lead to confusion for students when the GSI is teaching them one way and the lecturer another. "Going to lectures with the undergrads definitely helped me see what they were learning from a Michigan perspective," writes Winschel. She writes that doing so also helps you to bone up on the material for yourself, which can ease some of your tension in presenting it to students during your own class.

Lab Sections: A Special Beast

Grace Winschel oversees a lab during the WISE
 (Women in Science and Engineering) summer workshop
at the University of Michigan. Image credit: WISE.
Teaching lab presents a unique set of challenges. While the pressure to deliver expert knowledge is not quite as high since students are mostly following pre-written directions, there is an entirely new set of issues associated with making sure that students get through the lab session safely and efficiently. It can be overwhelming. How am I going to keep everyone safe? What do I do if an accident happens - will I handle it correctly? Do I actually know chemistry at all? "Serious stage fright can happen in your first day teaching lab," writes Winschel.

But there are simple things you can do to prepare, and the "stage fright" does not last forever. Winschel wrote that bad nerves were her biggest obstacle going into her first lab, but stresses the importance of being comfortable in the classroom lab environment. "I showed up to my first lab session early to explore the lab and make sure I knew where things were." Simply being able to direct students to the right part of the room quickly and easily means that you will be able to field most of their questions on the first day without any problems.

With teaching labs, safety takes precedence over everything else. The primary responsibility of a lab GSI is to get all of the students in the door, through the lab, and back out again with no injuries or accidents. "The biggest difference between an experienced GSI and a new one is the steps taken towards preventing [safety] incidents. Over time, you develop a sort of second vision [for safety violations]." One of the best things you can learn as a lab GSI is how to casually patrol your lab, looking for small things like unlabeled vials, loose hair, and missing goggles. Check in with your students regularly to see how they are doing. In addition to making the lab session go by a little faster, it goes a long way towards preventing the kinds of large accidents that you have nightmares thinking about. Your students will also feel that you are more actively involved in helping them, which makes them feel better about the class.

It's Not as Hard as You Think. Really.

All in all, teaching is not as bad as you think it is going to be, suggests Winschel. "Relax! And when that's impossible, act relaxed. Engage with your students, try to be helpful, be friendly. That will usually calm the nerves and build rapport with students - all positive things!"

For GSIs, a little effort goes a long way towards improving the learning experience for students. When asked what makes a good GSI, Dr. Shultz responded, "They care whether a student is learning and want to do a good job teaching. They are respectful of students' time and effort. They are flexible and will adapt to the needs of their students in real time. They are approachable, but at the same time aren't afraid to hold students accountable for their part."

Now, that doesn't sound so hard, does it? You might even like it.

For University of Michigan students who have already found that teaching is their thing and are interested in getting involved with research in chemical education, contact Dr. Shultz. ("Talk to me! I have projects and ideas coming out of my ears.") She can be reached at gshultz@umich.edu. Also, check out the U of M SLAM (Student Learning and Analytics at Michigan) Seminar Series and the School of Education Events Calendar for more information on how to get involved in other departments.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Chemistry Lit Feature Vol. V

Have you seen a good paper lately? Written one? Send it in and have it featured here! treetownchem@gmail.com

Tree Town Chemistry is back! After a mostly unintended summer hiatus, I am gearing up to blog throughout the semester once again. What better way to start back than with a literature feature?

Before we jump into that, I would like to announce that I will also be blogging for the Rackham Graduate School this semester as part of the Student Voices series. The posts there will be for a more general audience and the content will be more on the life side of the work-life spectrum, but I will be sure to cross-post when relevant.

In this episode of the Chemistry Literature Feature, we will look at large-scale characterization of graphene sheets, mechanisms of catalysis by gold complexes, new breakthroughs on the mysteries of energy transfer in photosynthesis, and more. But first:

Overheard at Michigan:
"So I have this black stuff on my platinum and I don't know how to clean it off."
(Labmate takes a quick look.) "Oh yeah, I always just light that on fire. Comes right off."

Analytical: Nondestructive Characterization of the Structural Quality and Thickness of Large-Area Graphene on Various Substrates
Materials chemists spend a lot of time worrying about surfaces - how clean they are, how flat they are, how well-coated they are, etc., and how all of those factors can be controlled. One significant challenge in this process is understanding how microscopic inhomogeneities (nanometer-micrometer size scale) are distributed throughout a macroscopic object. In this study ($), published in Analytical Chemistry (ACS), the authors apply a technique called spectroscopic ellipsometry to quickly build a topological map of graphene films synthesized by chemical vapor deposition on a variety of surfaces. By measuring how the films absorb polarized light, the authors are able to learn about the films' thickness and structural features over macroscopic (millimeter) size scales.

Chemical Biology: The Au clusters induce tumor cell apoptosis via specifically targeting thioredoxin reductase 1 (TrxR1) and suppressing its activity
As chemists, when we think of drugs, we tend to think of organic molecules - some large, some small. However, metals are sometimes used as pharmaceuticals as well, with a well-known example being the platinum-containing chemotherapeutic molecule cisplatin. A recent study ($) published in Chemical Communications (RSC) examines the cancer-fighting properties of well-defined clusters of 25 gold atoms. These clusters, stabilized and disguised from the cell by a peptide wrapper, were shown to enter cancerous cells and trigger their self-destruction by blocking the TrxR1 protein, which keeps the levels of reactive oxygen species inside the cell in check.

Inorganic: An Ultrastable Anode for Long-Life Room-Temperature Sodium-Ion Batteries
Odds are good that you use at least one lithium-ion battery every day of your life, and those odds are only going to get better. The catch? Lithium is rare, which makes it expensive. Chemists, such as the authors of this study ($) from Angewandte Chemie International Edition (GDCh), are investigating replacing the expensive lithium-containing parts of the battery with components made from more common elements such as sodium. In the paper, the authors describe the synthesis, structure, and long-term test behavior of a new sodium-ion battery negative electrode. The material efficiently exchanges sodium ions during charging and discharging up to 3,000 times while retaining ~85% of its capacity.

Materials: Molecular doping of graphene as metal-free electrocatalyst for oxygen reduction reaction
Fuel cells are a hot topic; particularly, a cheap and efficient hydrogen fuel cell would enable us to use hydrogen as a fuel with only pure water as a combustion product. Oxygen reduction is the kinetically limiting step in hydrogen fuel cells, so the faster oxygen reduction becomes, the more energy the fuel cell can pump out. The authors of this study ($), published in Chemical Communications (RSC), investigated a new graphene catalyst chemically modified by small amounts of nitrobenzene ("nitrobenzene-doped graphene"). The catalyst is tested for oxygen reduction activity using several electrochemical methods. The authors found that, although their catalyst was not as active as traditional platinum catalysts, their method of doping graphene significantly increases its activity compared to clean graphene and is worth taking a look at.

Organic: Role of Gold(I) α-Oxo Carbenes in the Oxidation Reactions of Alkynes Catalyzed by Gold(I) Complexes
A particular family of gold(I) complexes is known to catalyze the oxidation of alkynes to vinyl ketones in the presence of an O-atom donor and a nucleophile. However, side products are observed. The reactivity could accounted for if a particularly reactive gold oxo-carbene intermediate was forming, but no direct experimental evidence for that species has been published. To further understand the reaction pathway as catalyzed by gold(I) carbenes, the authors of this paper ($) in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (ACS) carried out a sophisticated study involving mass spectrometry and quantum chemistry calculations. The authors chase after the gold oxo-carbene intermediate and are able to demonstrate that it does indeed form during alkyne oxidations. Based on the difficulty of directly and conclusively identifying short-lived reaction intermediates, this study represents as significant achievement for the field.

Physical: Vibronic coherence in oxygenic photosynthesis
Photosystem II (PSII) is a very special complex. As the authors of this recent study in Nature Chemistry (NPG) point out, it is "the only known natural enzyme that uses solar energy to split water," which makes it a key player in solar energy fixation. With the advent of ultrafast spectroscopic methods (specifically 2-dimensional electronic spectroscopy, 2DES), groups have begun to paint a detailed picture of how the complex interacts with light in hopes of learning what makes it so effective. The authors of this particular paper observe the formation of a coherent excited state in PSII after the complex absorbs light. The coherence, which is a quantum mechanical superposition of two states, was determined to involve both electronic and vibrational states. This "teamwork" between electronic and vibrational motion could be an important factor in what makes PSII so good at charge separation, an important step in photosynthesis.
-University of Michigan research from the Ogilvie group. To read more about this article, check out the press release. Hat tip to Kimberly Daley for discussing coherences.

Remember, if you come across an article that you think should be featured here, send it in! treetownchem@gmail.com

ACS - American Chemical Society
GDCh - Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker

NPG -  Nature Publishing Group
RSC - Royal Society of Chemistry