Teaching Effectiveness Award recipients 2012
TOP: The 2012 Teaching Effectiveness Award winners and other relevant players: roughly clockwise from left, starting with Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri (seated, gold tie), Kim Starr-Reid, assistant director of the GSI Center, Sarah Chihaya (Comparative Literature), Marquise McGraw (Economics), Amy Wolfson (African American Studies), William Coleman (History of Art), Mark Fisher (Political Science), Rebecca Elliott (Sociology), Conrad Hegensbach (Mathematics), Kevin Krasnow (Environmental Science, Policy, and Management), Linda von Hoene, director of the GSI Center, Francesca Fornasini (Astronomy), Panayiotis Papadopoulos, Ph.D. ’92 (chair of the Graduate Council Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs and professor of Mechanical Engineering), and Sonja Schwartz (Environmental Science, Policy, and Management). Two other recipients, Christopher Mead (English) and Shawhin Roudbari (Architecture), were unable to attend the ceremony. BOTTOM: left, award winner Amy Wolfson gets a congratulatory hug from Associate Professor Ugo Nwokeji (also from the African American Studies department); right, Andrew Szeri presents the Teaching Effectiveness Award certificate to Sonja Schwartz. (photos: Peg Skorpinski)

It’s an annual ritual, the second act in a pair of ceremonies that honor GSIs for outstanding work in the teaching of undergraduates. The first, and larger, one took place May 1, and celebrated over 200 great GSIs. The second, in some ways the crème de la crème, on May 9 recognized a smaller number of people, drawn from very recent winners of the Outstanding GSI Award, who have effectively, and often cleverly, identified, addressed, and documented a teaching problem they encountered and how they solved it. Twelve GSIs were selected this year as winners of the Teaching Effectiveness Award. One of the recipients is briefly profiled below.

Reinventing the bean jar

“It was my third time teaching Introductory Biology,” recalls GSI Sonja Schwartz, “and I shuddered with the approach of the evolution lab section.”

Schwartz, an ESPM grad student, says her students every semester “complained about how these labs were boring” and didn’t really link up with the concepts they needed to understand.”

In hopes of making the third time the charm, Schwartz tried something very different. It not only worked, it won her an award from the Graduate Division’s GSI Teaching and Resource Center.

The traditional approach that students dreaded consisted, Schwartz says, of “approximately two hours of counting beans drawn out of a jar and a hand-waving explanation of how this was an illustration of natural selection in populations of mice. Students who already understood the material got the point in less than ten minutes and quickly lost interest. Students who didn’t understand were hopelessly confused by the tedious calculations.”

There had to be a better way.

After researching far and wide, including museum websites, for activities that were “intellectually and physically engaging,” she skipped the dry counting-house beans-for-mice symbolism, and had the students themselves “become” two populations of lizards that were separated by a mountain range (represented by a line of tape on the floor). The lizards did occasionally migrate, and this random intermingling was determined by rolled dice; the students physically walked over the “mountains.” Involving a host of learning styles, including active and passive as well as visual and auditory, the successive and varied “migrations” (plus homework) helped Schwartz’s students grab and hold onto the evolutionary concerts involved more effectively than beans had with previous groups.

Her results: “A huge jump in grades on the homework assignment for even my more poorly performing students, strongly positive survey feedback, and most importantly, students that were engaged and excited, rather than looking for the earliest opportunity to bolt for the door.”

Schwartz is one of 11 winners of the GSI Center’s Teaching Effectiveness Award this year, which it presents in cooperation with the Graduate Council Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs. The 2012 winners — and their tip-filled essays on teaching — are posted on the GSI Center’s website, along with essays from many previous years. Faculty members unashamedly admit to picking up useful ideas from the compendium.